Touring without Stress: How to Leave Your Anxiety in the Baggage Compartment

Joining a Sea of Strangers on the Streets of a Foreign City: A Practical Approach 

There are dozens of books you can read on understanding the social norms and etiquette of a particular country you will visit. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and attempts to capture a culture can lead you to believe that millions of people behave similarly in all cultural and social interactions.  In reality, etiquette is more rooted in local ways of life, with differences across provinces, rural areas, counties, and even city neighborhoods.  Think about how you would answer an American culture question from a Dutchman taking a road trip from Harlem, New York to a small fishing town in Maryland, to New Orleans, and then back to New York City – this time to Manhattan.  Would you know where to start?

One of the goals of social norms is to establish standard behavior so that people know what to expect of each other, and can stop thinking so much about basic interactions.  While many cultures encourage freedom of expression, many have tolerance “blind spots” and hypocrisies that may have originated in conflicts between religious, social, and political beliefs.  Not understanding or respecting social norms, no matter how exasperating they sometimes may be, can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, dejection, and significant stress.  Remember, your goal is to feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a place you’ve never been, so you can get your mind off “code of conduct” stress and enjoy your trip.

First arrival.  Sources of anxiety when arriving to the streets of a foreign city or town may include:

  • Not knowing what is appropriate street behavior (voice level, pointing, stopping to make a phone call, etc.);
  • Not wanting to offend people (e.g., violating taboos);
  • Smaller than normal personal space;
  • Level of formality expected or demanded; and
  • Fear of confrontation if making a mistake or upsetting someone.

A negative experience can amplify embarrassment into shame, with anger, distrust, and loss of confidence along for the ride.  Fortunately, negative experiences and encounters can be mitigated by a few key approaches.  These are:

  • Observation;
  • Self-awareness; and
  • Assimilation according to your own comfort level.

We’ll go over each of these below.

Observation.  Sit at a plaza café or a small park, alone or with your travel partner, and just watch people go by for an hour or so.  Notice things such as:

  • What are people doing that you find unusual or unnatural?
  • What are they not doing on the streets that you’re used to seeing?  This could include activities such as adjusting one’s clothes or hair, blowing one’s nose, or snacking at a pedestrian stoplight
  • How do other people react to someone who engages in generally anti-social behavior (such as letting a door slam in a stranger’s face, or corralling a taxi that someone else has hailed?)

Self-awareness.  Realize that you have two different street behaviors: one when you’re at home, in your accustomed environment, and one as a tourist or outsider.  At home you’re used to being part of the scene around you; as a tourist, you’re usually preoccupied with the scene, and stand apart from it. You may walk more slowly, stare, stop suddenly, and meander or change direction.  You may be more polite and more patient than normal, and you may be louder or quieter than normal. Your “tourist” behavior may or may not be more suited to the mannerisms of those around you.  Ask yourself:

  • How many of your unassuming street behaviors are going to draw unwelcome attention?
  • How good are you at controlling your first impulses and responses?
  • How much will this matter in your particular environment?

Comfortable assimilation.  Trying to blend in too much with the locals may take a lot of the enjoyment out of your travel.  Hurrying, looking down instead of around, and constantly restraining your interest and curiosity aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice tour.  Identify which two or three of your habits are the most disruptive or displeasing, and make a regular effort to tone them down.  Remember, the goal is to spare yourself embarrassment and anxiety – not make yourself uncomfortable.

This scene doesn't have to be intimidating.

This scene doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Establishing Straightforward Relationships as a Foreigner: Understanding Types of Interactions, and Roles

It might be unnerving to think about negotiating with strangers for what you need and want on a trip.  Asking for help, receiving services, or making arrangements with people you don’t know can expose you to a wide range of personalities, moods, cultural differences, and the occasional thoughtless or rude response. As a traveler, it helps to view your interactions as falling into one of two categories: 1) those that you have to initiate, and 2) those that the other person has to initiate. Another way to think of these respective categories is:

  1. Those interactions that you can’t control, and
  2. Those that you can.

Generally, if you’re paying for a service, then someone else has to initiate the interaction – and will likely do so in a courteous and sensitive manner (yes, I know, this is a very optimistic assumption!).  Since as a tourist you are paying for a number of things including hotels, airfare, secondary transportation, and meals, the majority of your interactions will be those where the other person must approach you and offer what you need and want.  Understanding this can go a long way towards mitigating your anxiety since breaking the ice with someone is almost always the most stressful aspect of an interaction.  Let tour guides, waiters, bellhops, maids, flight attendants, and hotel receptionists do their jobs, and relax.

Examples of interactions that you usually initiate include those with taxi drivers; when asking for directions or help; when making reservations or arrangements you haven’t yet paid for; or with unresponsive service staff.  If you’re like most people have some anxiety, you try to keep these interactions to a minimum – or resort to email for reservations or to file a complaint.

There are several scenarios where either you or another person may initiate an interaction, such as with store clerks, police or security, other guests, or other tourists.  In some cases you’ll want or need something enough that you’ll broach someone whether it causes you anxiety or not; in other cases, someone may notice that you need something, or are having problems, and come to you.  You’ll have to decide whether it causes you more stress to approach someone out of the blue, or wait a while to be approached.

Is there a correlation between how much money you spend and how much thought you have to put into interacting with others?  Not necessarily.  Although budget travelers are going to pay for fewer services and have to be more proactive in getting what they need, people who are traveling in luxury are going to have more discretion in their interactions with a large number of service people, and may spend a lot of time and energy concerned about how much to tip, who to call for a certain type of service, etc.  Things are going to be most straightforward for middle-of-the-road travelers.

Roles you play

There are basically three roles you play as a tourist.  These are:

  1. Customer;
  2. Guest in country; and
  3. Fellow tourist.

Once you realize that this is how others see you, you may lose a lot of fear of interacting with others.  Here are some things to be aware of regarding each of your roles.

Customer.  Despite your status as a paid customer at a hotel or on a flight, train, ship, etc., you might encounter some unwarranted negativity from service people that causes you distress.  It may seem obvious, but different service people will have different attitudes toward tourists.  Many are in their jobs because they enjoy interacting with people around the globe; others are frustrated with working for low wages, and resent that you have the means to vacation thousands of miles away.

If you’re stuck in a days-long arrangement with stress-inducing service staff, try softening them up by getting their mind off work.  You can usually do this by talking about what you love about their city, compared to what you don’t like at home.  Frustrated people want to rediscover their surroundings, or see that they have things better than they realized – and curiosity about what your home country is really like often gets the better of their unfriendliness.

Guest in country.  If you wander off the typical tourist path, you may interact with the people of your host country outside of just the service sector.  This could be at a supermarket, a bus stop, or a post office, where – depending on how provincial your destination is – you could be stared at or treated as something of a novelty.  Friendly and curious people can cause you to feel very awkward without intending to.  If their attention or scrutiny causes you anxiety, remember that you have a lot of control at the start of an interaction with someone, but the longer you engage, the less you’re able to deny invitations or queries without stress.  Do your share of smiling and excusing yourself – and move on with your business.

There are plenty of stories about Americans (and a lot fewer about Canadians) who are openly derided or snubbed abroad, but if you’re traveling alone or with only one other person, you’re far more likely to be judged as an individual rather than subject to stereotypes.  Some of the personality traits that are common among anxiety sufferers, such as being reserved and sensitive to the needs of others, work against the usual stereotypes applied to Americans, and in your favor.

Fellow tourist.  Consider this: you’re more likely to have an unpleasant experience with other tourists than with service personnel or locals.  This is because you’re essentially competing with other tourists for the best seats, space, or attention wherever you go.  People from different cultures may demonstrate a variety of impatient or aggressive responses when it comes to seeing what they want to see, and going where they need to go.  Keep in mind that your public behavior may be equally unfamiliar to them, and may even come off as arrogant or threatening, even if this is the last thing you intend and you’re behaving like you always would.

Despite these challenges, you should be prepared to occasionally interact with other tourists to get what you need or want.  You may need to use someone else’s phone because your battery has gone dead, or you could need a couple bills of the local currency because the local TravelExchange kiosk doesn’t open for hours.  The basic rule is to not expect any favors from other tourists.  If you need something, you should have something to offer in exchange.  This could be, for example:

Ÿ                     Your still-valid metro ticket in exchange for someone’s map;

Ÿ                     A camera trade to take pictures of each other in front of landmarks; or

Ÿ                     A couple Euros in exchange for using their cell phone for a few minutes.

Making it clear what you have to offer, and what you would like in exchange, makes it difficult for the other person to say no, yet doesn’t make you come off as pushy or demanding.

On the shuttle bus from Buenos Aires to the cruise port.  Do you folks mind moving over so I'm not standing on the red line?

On the shuttle bus from Buenos Aires cruise check-in to the Celebrity port. Would you folks mind moving your luggage so I’m not standing on the red line when the door opens?

Antarctica: The Ideal Escape for Anxiety Sufferers?

Yes, it’s summer, which means people are booking Antarctica cruise tickets right now to grab those last great deals for ships departing early next year — while many others are already booking summer savings to cruise in January 2015.   Does the White Continent hold a special place in the hearts of loners, worriers, and anxious dreamers? You bet.  There’s something about all that ice, all that whiteness, and the idea of journeying right off the face of the earth that appeals to us — even when the cost and the logistics of going that far south are a definite challenge

So is it true that an uninhabited place of stunning natural wonder is perfect for you?  Consider the following.

1. If you do book a dream trip to Antarctica, it will most likely be on a cruise ship (unless you’re a millionaire who can afford a plane or a helicopter down…) or a smaller “explorer“ ship that can actually land you on ice.  That means being in relatively close quarters with hundreds, if not a couple thousand, people.  I took one of those “big” cruises, and while I had a fantastic time, I have to say that at the end of two weeks, I had a very intense need for my personal space back.  My advice?  Learn from my challenges and shell out the extra money for a room with a balcony.  If you book an indoor stateroom, the only way you’re going to get a view (or even some fresh air) is to mingle with the dozens milling the observation decks upstairs… and your social anxiety might get the best of you.

2. You don’t have to actually do anything on an Antarctic cruise if you don’t want to — a great pleasure if you‘re in need of some serious stress detox.  Not only are your meals and room and board taken care of like on any other cruise ship, but outdoor activities shut down as the temperatures plunge.  No outdoor pool; no dancing outside; fewer distractions; no need for you to feel like you should be drifting from fore to aft all day to make the most of your expensive ticket.  You usually just sit and enjoy the stunning scenery.  And let your imagination take over.

3. Antarctica appeals to the nature-loving, highly-sensitive introvert.  I met many such individuals in my experience earlier this year.  For every group of ten or twelve people who clearly knew each other, there was at least one person who looked like they had in fact booked the trip to the end of the earth to get away from their anxiety triggers.  These people can become your friends if you have the energy and courage to work up a conversation with them.  It would probably be a lot more difficult to connect with another anxiety sufferer outside the Louvre or the Parthenon.


Did I mention the photo opportunities?  Take your own set of stunning shots, print them when you get back home, and one look back will bring you to that mental space where you had thousands of miles of ice and sea to meditate on during your incredible journey.

Need a good place to start searching for this trip of a lifetime?  I had a good experience with Vacations to Go:

–The Brave Traveler

Traveling Off-Season: Does it Ease Anxiety?

Yes, definitely.    

No, there are the same anxiety triggers year-round.  

Maybe… depends what kind of traveler you are, and your particular anxieties…

What do you think?

Summer is synonymous with vacation.  Or is it?  As millions of travelers enjoy the stunning sites around the world this time of year, millions more longing vagabonds wait out the summer crowd in favor of a more tranquil and less rushed getaway in the fall or early winter.  Others are saving their plans for New Year’s — perhaps to mark a resolution to emerge from the cocoon of armchair traveler.

If you suffer from social anxiety, chances are you’re more likely than anyone to wait to book for January, February, or March — particularly if your destination is in Europe or other northern destinations, where the icy stillness of winter brings a solitude to the quiet thrill of exploring something new, while most everyone else is inside reading, surfing, watching TV.

So if you didn’t book your trip for this summer, don’t worry; don’t feel you’ve missed your chance for the year.  If cold temperatures make you hesitate to book in the fall and winter, remember — it’s always summer somewhere in the world.  And holiday travel season will be here before you know it!


Not scared enough to stay home…

…but still feeling a little overwhelmed!


In this picture, are you the man in the gray sweater, feeling extremely ill at ease? 

Are you the girl in the purple dress, trying to hurry out? 

Or are you the camerawoman, trying to look away as you steer toward the exit?

Social anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress can paralyze you in travel scenarios unless you know what to do.  You need practice and confidence in yourself as a traveler.  You need to understand yourself and your limits, and how others think, react, and behave in exciting but unfamiliar environments.  More than the average traveler, you need to have back-up plans for facing the unexpected.  Perhaps most of all, you need to be determined to travel, to enjoy yourself, and to reach farther beyond home than you ever before.

Enjoy exploring the blog, and the book.