I really enjoyed Jonathan Look Jr.’s article “Why No One Cares About Your Travels” in Forbes. I’ve certainly told stories that interest me, while watching the interest drain from my friends’ faces.
“It’s fascinating,” I say, “the way tuk-tuks are such a part of everyday life in Chiang Mai. And in Jaipur, too, but no one calls them tuk-tuks there! They just look at you funny if you do.”
I might be the only person on the planet who cares. Yet…I care! What might the different words for the same thing across cultures tell us about…
Sometimes I catch myself telling stories argumentatively, like I’m trying to convince people that they’re worth listening to and even laughing at.
But those aren’t arguments I can win. The harder I try, the more embarrassingly I fail.
I get frustrated when the people I care about don’t automatically care about the stories that matter to me. After all, I cheated death in a number of them and that should count for something!
Sadly, not much.
Jonathan hit it right on the head when he wrote about this being a problem of context and relatability. Unless you’ve visited a country with tuk-tuks, you probably can’t relate to using them for travel, and can’t reasonably be expected to care—even if you’ve travelled a lot otherwise. And those stories where I probably should have died? That little drama means a lot more to me, and possibly my mother, than to anyone else on the planet.
It’s humbling to realize that very little, if anything, that happens on an adventure has any intrinsic significance to anyone back home. They weren’t there; they can’t relate; beyond polite interest, they probably—as Jonathan boldly wrote—don’t actually care.
But that’s not a reason to withhold my stories. Rather, it’s the reason to share them differently.
Help Me Relate
Here’s how to make me care about your stories: talk about something relatable. Dress it up however you want, but find something I can relate to, and care about.
That might be something we have in common, be it a feeling like hope or loneliness, or an experience like getting a haircut. The core of the story should be something I’ve experienced too, or done as well, albeit in your radically different context. Exotic details should adorn your story, not serve as the point of it.
There are many ways to do that. Here’s an example where I try to be relatable despite exotic context. On the surface, it’s about getting a haircut. Interestingly to me, it’s set in Cuba.
“I’m not very good at telling barbers exactly what kind of haircut I’m after. I just trust that they magically know, or can figure it out by working backward from the mess I present them. So I kind of knew what I hoped for, but had no idea what I was going to get, when I went into this barbershop in Havana. Throw a language barrier into it, and I really felt I was at the guy’s mercy. Would it look good? Was he thinking about some weird, experimental cut to try out, because he’d never see me again and I wasn’t able to give him any better ideas?
“Just about anything could have happened when I sat down, including him robbing me with a straight razor, but one thing kept me seated: I trusted him, because this is what he does for a living. At least if I ended up looking like a dork, I didn’t know anyone else in the country, which is just as good as not looking like a dork so long as I kept away from mirrors. So I pointed at my head and made a scissor motion with my fingers and hoped for the best.”
Make Me Feel Something
People won’t remember what was said, or who was right or wrong, so much as they’ll remember how you made them feel. It’s an old adage with a lot of merit. Facts matter, but more in law and science than in relationships. When people feel like you’re really paying attention, really getting what they’re saying, they keep talking. To get them to extend you the same courtesy, give them something not just to marvel at, but to care about.
Then, you can reach people beyond those who were with you at the time.
That’s what I’d like to add to Jonathan’s article.
He beautifully wrote, “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.”
There’s a lot to be said for that, but I’m not ready to part ways with those friends who lack a similar ability or interest in travel. Nor do I want to bore them to death.
Instead, I take quiet moments over coffee to relive some of my more memorable experiences, and tell the stories to myself. I wonder why I care. The first answer is always, “because it happened to me!”
Then I ask myself the question again: why do I care? When I find a really good answer, like “Because that was a test of my character,” or, “Because I had to overcome this insecurity in some challenging way,” then I probably have a compelling story—one worth sharing, anyway. I can dress it up with exotic details to make it funny or poignant, so long as it doesn’t require unsolicited context to understand.
The trick is then to tell my story in such a way that someone else might feel a connection. If it’s about hope, I talk about hope. If it’s about fear, I talk about fear. If it’s about trying to find takeout when I’m too hangry to think straight, that’s the context in which I set the story. Then the exotic details make the relatable content interesting enough to talk about.
Told wrong, the story of a spirit quest across India can put me to sleep.
Told right, a story about getting a haircut can be compelling.
Hanging out with other travelers is wonderful. But I want to share my stories, and their personal meaning, with the rest of my friends, too. When they seem genuinely interested, I know I’ve found a valuable way to really connect my ideas and experiences with someone else.
That’s one goal of good storytelling.
Then when a story really clicks, I write about it.