TRAVEL CAN BE EMOTIONALLY TRYING AT THE BEST of times. There are far more instances when one is uncomfortable during travel, both physically and emotionally, than in everyday life. In order for this to not be incredibly overwhelming, you need to be pretty emotionally sturdy.
The best travelers — the ones that are the most compassionate, the most open, the most flexible and kind — are the ones that are emotionally intelligent. They’re the people who are in touch with and understand their own emotions, and can read and respond to the emotions of others. This ability to empathize and reflect is easily the most important trait one can have when going out into the world to travel. Here are six of the things emotionally intelligent travelers do.
The single most important rule that literally everyone with any amount of emotional intelligence must live by is this: listen. Listening is a fundamentally unselfish act: it is the act of hearing what another person has to say without any reference to what you have to say. This holds especially true for travelers, as they are in a position where there are a lot more obstacles to functional communication.
A traveler who knows how to listen knows that listening isn’t just a matter of hearing, but also of seeing: try and recognize the context you’re in. Recognize the body language of the person you’re talking to. Recognize discomfort. And then absorb all of that with as little judgment as possible.
2. Don’t try to fix everything.
The impulse when one sees suffering is to try to alleviate it. But that, paradoxically, can be a selfish impulse, an impulse that is largely geared towards relieving your own discomfort with the suffering. If you see suffering during your travels, the situation may be that you do not have the proper skills to fix that suffering, or that you may not be the person who is needed to alleviate it. We hear about this a lot in reference to the “white savior complex,” but it does not apply exclusively to white people: many people want to jump in and fix a problem before fully understanding the problem. This usually causes problems of its own.
Someone with emotional intelligence will be able to accept the suffering, empathize with it, and simply be there for the sufferer, if they are needed. It all goes back to listening: you try to harness your impulses to help, and provide the help that’s needed instead.
3. Learn the basic words of courtesy in the local language.
Look: you’re not going to be able to learn the language of every single country you visit. There’s nothing wrong with this, no one expects every visitor to their shores to know their language. But learning a few words shows a few things to your hosts: first, that you are making an effort to speak their language in their home. And second, that you aren’t just interested with what they can do for you, but that you actually appreciate what they’re doing enough to let them know about your appreciation.
4. Learn the art of respect in their host country.
Like with the language basics, learning the basics of respect in a country is important. But this is usually more difficult. First, things like hand gestures or dress code are usually more complex than simples “pleases” and “thank you’s,” and second, these are things you might actually have some moral issue with.
Say, for example, you’re a woman visiting a strict Muslim country where women are expected to wear head coverings at all times. You might find this degrading or anti-feminist. But you should still respect their cultural norms, and not only because not doing so might make you a little bit less secure. You should do it because it’s a sign of deference to the fact that you are the visitor in their culture. Some families ask that you take your shoes off when you enter the house. You might not do this at your home, but you do it at theirs in the understanding that in different places, different rules might apply.
The rules might be nonsense or might even be unjust, but you are likely not the best placed person to fight those unjust rules, because you aren’t fully aware of the context. So you defer to the rule, or choose not to go.
5. Let themselves feel things.
One of the easiest ways to deal with some of the difficult things you see when you travel is to simply brush the feeling aside or push the feeling down. While this stoicism usually has some romance attached to it, it’s not particularly healthy. We’re animals, and animals have feelings and moods. If we don’t allow ourselves to have these feelings or moods naturally, then they can no longer be in our control.
So if an emotionally intelligent traveler sees something that upsets them, they allow themselves to be upset.
6. Don’t let their feelings dictate their actions.
Emotional intelligence consists not only of understanding one’s emotions, but of mastering them as well. Say the airport loses your luggage and you are furious. Would you direct that anger at your partner?
You might, sure, but the loss of the luggage isn’t your partner’s fault. It wouldn’t be particularly fair to them. The smart thing to do is to channel that anger in useful ways — do what you can to get your luggage back, file a complaint, maybe talk the airline into giving you a couple of free tickets — and then letting that anger go. The more feelings have control over your actions, the less control you have over them.