The Questions You Should Never Ask a Traveler (and What To Do Instead)
How was your trip?
Show me pictures!
Tell me everything!
No, no, and no.
While these are well-intended, they just don’t work. Not for the asker. Not for the answerer.
I’m barely 15 seconds into speaking about my trip and just swiping to picture #3 (of the most beautiful mountain you’ve ever seen, obviously) and there it is, that disinterested glaze in their eye. Ouch. Maybe I talk too much. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe both. Who really knows? But if you’re on the asking end of it and you want to cut to the good stuff, here are a few tips to keep everyone sane:
First, ask yourself if you care.
Really. Do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a traveler yourself or a homebody (don’t be fooled, we travelers aren’t always interested in each other’s adventures), or if you’re talking to your daughter or a co-worker, you can’t always care about what every single person has to say. There’s just not enough time in life. But you can always be genuine.
If you don’t care, don’t ask. Something along the lines of “Welcome back. I hope you had a really great time,” or “I hope your trip was what you were looking for,” is authentic, succinct, and effective. The latter acknowledges some sort of unspoken yet mutually understood distance between two people that we can’t quite explain but that we all know exists. It’s okay.
If you don’t really care, save both parties’ time. And if that’s the case, I grant you my personal permission to stop reading here. You’re dismissed. However, if you do catch yourself caring, I urge you to carry on.
Don’t be lazy. Be specific.
It’s easy to ask, “How was it?” It doesn’t require much thought on the part of the questioner. But guess what, thoughtless questions get thoughtless answers: “Great!”
So if you want to know, be specific. A great “small-talk” travel conversation I had was with someone who, surprisingly, I didn’t know that well. What was the scariest thing that happened to you? He dropped the question on me and there I was, less than 90 seconds later, jumping out of my seat, eyes bulging out of my head, acting out how the whole scene, and whipping out real-life footage of a Himalayan landslide that happened right before my eyes. The question was simple but effective. And it, along with other equally thought-provoking questions, turned into an hour-long lively conversation.
At another point in my life, I shared an experience with someone much closer to me. Upon returning to campus in the States after spending a semester in Central America, I felt totally disoriented. After a few weeks of realizing that starting my sentences with “when I was in Costa Rica…” only earned apathetic looks and held-back eye rolls, I started to keep to myself and draw inward. At the time, that was the most recent and important experience in my life, and I didn’t have many interested people to share it with. I’m not saying I fell into some sort of deep depression over it, but yeah, it sucked. Then I was asked by someone who really, really cared. He knew how to ask questions, and quite frankly, it’s a conversation I’ll never forget. When I was asked about my host family, what I ate every day, how safe I felt walking around, and for pictures of my house, my school, my friends, I felt connected, accepted, and eager to share and explain even the littlest of details of this huge part of my life.
What do you actually want to know? As with many things in life, the usual rule sticks: not interesting for you, not interesting for them. So go ahead and interest yourself.
Recently I was interviewed by Unmapped travel podcast about my 10 months abroad. Some of their questions had me stumped: Do you think you can grow as deeply hopping around countries as you could staying in one place? Did you feel guilty being away from family? How did your relationships change? These questions were real, raw, honest, interested. Yes, they’re thinking about what will be interesting to their listeners, but the same goes for us regular joes who aren’t running businesses: how do the travels of this person relate to you? What value could their trip add to your life? What do you secretly really wanna know?
Sitting in that podcast studio, I laughed, I almost cried, I blanked out a few times at a loss for words, and honestly, I felt more connected to these two host-acquaintances in two hours than I had to some really close loved ones upon returning home — it didn’t matter whose motive was what.
Make sure you have time.
If you’re running to a meeting in the morning, falling asleep at night, or just otherwise generally distracted, then it’s not the time to ask someone about their trip. It’s not that everyone who asks a travel question must immediately morph into a psychologist or a cheerleader, but like any big event in someone’s life, give it the respect it deserves.
Or, if you’re looking to make a quick exit, refer back to line 1 up top.