Confessions of an Introverted Traveler

Speaker's Corner: Sophia Dembling has a different style of traveling, and she's tired of hiding it

03.09.09 | 9:43 AM ET

Photo by Sophia Dembling

I was talking to a friend who is who intelligent, well-informed, worldly and well-traveled. He and his wife have visited every continent and have a robust interest in world politics and culture.

Still, he sounded a little sheepish.

“You know how people say that the reason to travel is to meet people?” he said. “Do you ... ?  I ... I don’t really ...”

He was reluctant to finish the sentence, but his filthy secret was out: He doesn’t buy into that style of travel.

“I don’t either,” I assured him. I felt liberated.

We introverts have a different style of travel, and I’m tired of hiding it.

Oh, I’m always happy enough when interesting people stumble into my path. It’s a lagniappe, and I’m capable of connecting with people when the opportunity arises. And when the chemistry is right, I enjoy it.

But I don’t seek people out, I am terrible at striking up conversations with strangers and I am happy exploring a strange city alone. I don’t seek out political discourse with opinionated cab drivers or boozy bonding with locals over beers into the wee hours. By the time the hours get wee, I’m usually in bed in my hotel room, appreciating local color TV. (So sue me, but I contend that television is a valid reflection of a society.)

This is not something I confess easily. I have long been shamed out of owning my introversion by the extroverts who dominate American culture. Extroversion has long been considered healthier than introversion, and introverts often try to push against our natural tendencies in order to fit in, to seem “normal” so people will stop scolding us. Extroverts are unintentional bullies, demanding that everyone join their party or be considered queer, sad or stunted.

Introversion and extroversion are inborn traits, and the difference between them is not that one is gregarious and at ease in the world and the other shy and awkward. Rather, extroverts are outwardly motivated and gain energy from interaction with the outside world while introverts are more inwardly directed and drained by interaction with others. Introverts’ thinking tends to be deep and slow, we require copious time alone, we prefer probing conversation to shallow chitchat, and our social lives are geared more towards intimate one-on-one interactions than “more the merrier” free-for-alls.

I’m friends with a couple who take annual yachting vacations to exotic destinations such as the British Virgin Islands, Turkey and Croatia with groups of as many as 12 people. This couple long ago stopped inviting me and my introverted husband, Tom, on these trips, though I can sense their puzzled disappointment over our persistent refusals. But the thought of 10 days in a small space with that many people gives me hives. Tom and I have tried to explain, but I’m not sure our friends get it. Telling me how nice everyone is misses the point. I’m sure each and every person is delightful, but there are just too darn many of them at once. Period.

We’re also not bed-and-breakfast people, if breakfast with other guests is mandatory. (“Where y’all from?” we joke to each other. The mating call of the B&B guest.) I once read about a B&B where the owner collected antique hats that guests were encouraged to wear to breakfast. Really? That sounds fun to people?

At the only B&B Tom and I have ever liked, in the Texas Hill Country, we never even saw the owners. Breakfast was left each morning in a basket on our porch. Perfect.

Extroversion is a powerful force in America and one that few other cultures share. When traveling alone in Finland a few years ago, with the scolding voices of extroverts in my brain, I tried to present an open, approachable demeanor. One night in a restaurant (dining alone is always a little stressful, even for loners like myself) I bravely plastered a cheery American grin on my face for the waitress, trying not to look as peculiar as I felt—a lone middle-aged American woman touring Finland as the cold, dark winter set in.

But Finns are not the indiscriminate smilers Americans are—one might even call them dour—and my waitress seemed a little discomfited by my insistent smile. Finally she gave me her best effort at returning it, and a more pinched and strained approximation of a smile I have never seen. I was touched but also embarrassed for us both. I wiped the silly grin off my own face and got down to the business of eating dinner and quietly observing my fellow diners.

Though I don’t need to talk to a lot of people, I love watching them. Many of my favorite travel memories involve sitting and watching. I spent hours under the midnight sun in the Vigeland Sculpture Garden in Oslo, watching people wander among the statues. In Venice, Tom and I returned several times to a café with tables under a huge tree where we passed some time over snacks and cold drinks, watching Venetians go about their business. In Rome my niece and I ended every day with gelato at a favorite spot outside the Pantheon. Sitting, eating, watching. Conversation optional.

I can think of only one time when my introversion was challenged by a trip and that was a two-week solo excursion through the Alpine regions of Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland—reserved cultures (except for the Italians), unlikely to engage strangers in conversation.

Halfway through this trip, when I reached Linz, Austria, I was getting lonely. So I settled into a lively outdoor café one afternoon and tried to look approachable. I gave encouraging glances to a couple with a small child sitting nearby, seeking the slightest sign that conversation would be welcome. Nothing. Even my waiter refused to engage in any chitchat. The night following that afternoon remains among the loneliest of my decades of travels. The hotel room in which I holed up was above a lively bar (I particularly dislike going to bars alone). I sat in my room listening to the party below and felt sorry for myself.

Near the end of the trip, on the train to Zermatt, a group of Americans entered my car, and I threw myself at them, begging them to talk to me. They warmly obliged and even extended an invitation to dine with them that night, which I gladly accepted.

So I ended up interacting with my own culture, which isn’t really the point, is it?

Nonetheless, for some of us, meeting people is not the sole purpose of travel. I travel for the travel. And I will be forever grateful to my friend for his confession. It’s good to know that I might be a loner, but I’m not alone.