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How Traveling Helped Me Overcome Shyness

by Tom Stockwell Oct 17, 2013

Those who know me probably wouldn’t use the word “shy” to describe me. Around my friends, I tend to babble about everything from drag queens and travel to how I think that giving your child a mullet should be a legally recognised form of child abuse. It totally should.

But hop in the time machine and go back to the start of the century, and you’ll see a dorky kid with thick glasses and a hairstyle resembling a mushroom. He doesn’t really talk to anyone except a handful of very close friends. The other kids in his class are mean to him, so he’s afraid of talking to new people.

Here’s the big reveal: That kid is me. Or, was me. You weren’t expecting that, were you? Okay, so I know you totally were. Shut up and act surprised.

I’ve never been the type of person who can go up and talk to people they don’t know. Whenever I used to meet friends of friends, I’d listen to conversations quietly, sussing out the new person, afraid of raising my voice and speaking out in case I made a fool of myself.

This only started to change in my early 20s, when I made the decision to move to Korea and start teaching. A shy teacher doesn’t cut it in a room where you have 10 kids that don’t speak your language. You have to make the first move.

Can you imagine how awkward it’d be if someone welcomed you into their home and you just sat there, mute and afraid to speak?

Fast forward to now, and I’d say I’ve come a long way. The more I travel, the more I overcome my shyness. Occasionally I still find myself wandering around a bus station in a foreign country, unsure of where I should go, too shy to ask the group of bus drivers where the right bus is. Maybe it’s a psychological thing that harks back to my school days — I don’t want to talk to the group of people I don’t know for fear of being ridiculed.

But you see, adults don’t do that. And if they do, they’re jerks. Also, if I don’t ask the bus drivers, I might miss the only bus of the day, so I suck it up, ask, and you know what? It’s fine. They don’t laugh. Sure, they might look confused at my pronunciation of their language, but then they’ll point me in the right direction, or take me to the bus in person.

Hostels have proved tricky for me in the past, too. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has checked into a crowded dorm room and not even received a “hi” or a smile from his dorm-mates. But when I’m traveling alone, I tend to go crazy unless I have people to talk to. So if they don’t say hi? I’ll say hi. People talk back. Some give very short answers and clearly aren’t interested in conversation. Others will become friends. You have to do it when you travel. If I didn’t, I’d end up miserable and glued to my computer all day talking to whoever is available to chat on Facebook, complaining about how I have nobody to talk to.

Likewise, Couchsurfing has helped me out a lot. Can you imagine how awkward it’d be if someone welcomed you into their home and you just sat there, mute and afraid to speak? Well, I don’t like to make people feel awkward, so Couchsurfing has encouraged me to open my mouth and helped me talk to strangers more easily.

In short, travel has helped me overcome shyness. When I’m not on the road, I find I can talk to new people more easily. I’m not afraid to ask if I’m unsure about something. My personality type is ESFJ, with the “E” standing for “extrovert” — but my extrovert side is only slightly stronger than my introvert side. Sometimes I’m the life of the party, other times I just want to stand on the outskirts and quote Mean Girls with a couple of friends. But now, it’s a lot more the former than the latter, especially after I’ve been plied with vodka.

Travel teaches you a lot of things, and the fact that it’s helped me overcome shyness is probably the most valuable thing I’ve taken away from it, in terms of personal growth. I’m not the 18-year-old going to university and worrying that nobody will talk to him, and if I were still the same person I was nine years ago, I’d be a little bit worried. Now into my 27th year on this planet, I’m going to continue giving shyness the middle finger, continue to care less about what people think of me when I open my mouth, and vow not to miss a train because I was too silly and nervous to ask the conductor a simple question. * This post was originally published at Waegook-Tom and is reprinted here with permission.

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