It is a common complaint of veteran long-term travelers everywhere. You return for a visit to your home town, excited to tell friends your tales of hiking the Camino de Santiago or the amazing oysters you sucked fresh from the sea in Cancale, France; and no one cares. You expect your friends would be excited about how you witnessed the Abu Simbel Sun Festival in Egypt or rode a boat through the Beagle Channel in Patagonia but, although they may listen politely and nod their head while they resist the urge to look at their watch, you quickly realize, they would rather be talking about almost anything else.
I thought I was alone, but this is a rather common phenomenon, and there have been scientific studies that discovered why. It turns out; it isn’t (primarily) about jealousy; the problem is about context. Your adventures are unrelatable. Most people are simply more interested in talking about familiar things than they are curious about the new things that you want to introduce to the conversation. Yes, there is a social cost associated with leaving the herd and having unique experiences.
In their paper, “The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience,” Harvard Psychologists Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson discuss how exceptional experiences makes us both “alien and enviable.” As the authors observed, “At worst, people may be envious and resentful of those who have had an extraordinary experience, and at best, they may find themselves with little to talk about.”
In an experiment, the researchers divided subjects into small groups. From those groups, one person was given a funny video of a street performer to watch alone, while the others were given a crappy video animation to watch together.
Before they watched the videos, the researchers told everyone which they were going to see: the entertaining street-magician, or the crummy cartoon.
Immediately after watching their assigned footage, the participants were asked to rate how happy they felt at that moment.
Then the groups all reassembled and talked a bit before again being separated and asked two questions.
- How happy they felt now.
- How included they’d felt in the conversation with their peers.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, when everything was over, the folks that watched the good video of the street performer immediately felt happier, but after everyone had a chance to discuss their experiences, the group that had shared the collective experience of watching the inferior video together felt happier than those who watched the superior video but didn’t have the shared experience.
Eight years ago, when I retired, sold almost everything I owned and began traveling the world, I didn’t do it to escape or to separate myself from the things I loved. I did it because I wanted to add some experience and adventure to my life. I wanted to move toward being my genuine self, instead of continuing the cookie-cutter life that society had designed for me. However, it didn’t take long to find that moving toward new things in life inevitably moves you away from others. I wanted to share the things I discovered about the world and myself with my old friends, but I found that, because there was no common thread to follow, not many were interested.
You met your old friends at a different place and in a different phase of your life. While there still may be affection, your interests and theirs – unless you continue to share common experiences – grow apart. That doesn’t make your new experiences any more valuable than theirs, but it does mean that there is nothing to share or bond over. Nothing in common to discuss. Sure, trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge in China may be exciting for you, but apart from that time you got lost or almost fell, your non-adventure seeking friends just won’t care. They can’t relate.
Even though there is social cost, you should still seek out and have extraordinary experiences.
If you want to be able to share your adventures with people that appreciate hearing about them, you need to find friends that enjoy participating in the same type of experiences. That is why travelers tend to find each other and group together. They see tales of faraway places as aspirational instead of alien or uninteresting. They are capable of relating and can see themselves realistically emulating the experience. It is a human trait to be more interested in things you can relate too, more than things that inspire.
So, let your hometown friends get all excited about the new chain restaurant opening, or the road construction project that is almost finished; and if you can, try to share their excitement too. But, if you want to bond over tales of walking the ruins of Machu Picchu with people that care, you need to find an audience that has relatable experiences. Because, ultimately, your non-traveling friends don’t care about your travels. To avoid frustration, share those memories with people that share the same interests and for your own personal growth.