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An Introvert Abroad: 5 Ways to Strike Social Balance When Traveling

Being introverted doesn’t mean being alone! Image by Flickr user Davids imperfect fantasy.

As an introverted adolescent, Friday nights were often fraught with tension. I can think of multiple occasions when friends became angry with me for deciding to stay home rather than hang out. A particularly jarring example of this came during my junior year abroad in Prague. One Friday night my roommate took issue with my decision to stay in. Though I’m sure she was trying to help, to “save” me from my evening of solitude, this reaction infuriated and confused me. Why did she care how I spent my time? How could she be so angry about a choice that didn’t affect her? I couldn’t understand her hostility against what was, for me, a natural and necessary choice.

Of course, she isn’t the only one who has shamed me for choosing to stay inside my apartment, to stay inside of myself, rather than choosing to explore the world outside. I have. Sometimes I still do. As much as I try to embrace my introversion, I grew up in a culture that prioritizes the social, and I have shaped myself to survive in that culture so much so that people often don’t believe me when I tell them I consider myself an introvert. Take my self-critical nature into account, and I tend to obsess over finding the balance between embracing my need to spend time alone or in small groups and embracing the world that lies outside that comfort zone. This dilemma seems to become particularly poignant when I am traveling. I don’t want to miss out on anything. I want to take advantage of every possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I want to be well-rested enough to appreciate it. And, for me, well-rested is as much about finding a requisite amount of alone time as it is about getting enough sleep.

My beautiful apartment in Prague

My beautiful apartment in Prague. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

So, how to strike a balance between staying in and going out when you are traveling? I wish I had an easy answer for you, a set list of question that could determine what you should do with your Friday night. But I think the answer is unique to each of us introverts and unique to the Friday night. It lies in our intuition. It lies in knowing ourselves well enough to know what we need. Luckily, travel can be a great way to hone this particular skill. If I have learned anything while traveling, it is how to better listen to my intuition. This seems the key to finding that balance, but I have some other tips to help you along the way…

Surround Yourself with People Who Understand Your Introversion

I made some amazing friends while studying abroad, many of whom were as extroverted as they come. One of my good friends, a talented poet, had a social circle much wider than my own and spent many a night out on the town. She never pressured me to join, and I loved her for it. For our last night in Prague, my friends and I each made a list of all of the things we wanted to do between sunset and sunrise. Our respective lists included many of the same activities: hot chocolate from Cafe Louvre, pivo at U Sudu, visit to the Lennon Wall. But they differed in some ways, too. When I went back to my apartment at 3 am to help my roommate dye her hair bright red, others stayed out, meeting up with larger groups from our program. We all met at Charles Bridge at sunrise, no less friends for having different definitions of how we wanted to spend our last night in Prague.

Being introspective in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Being introspective in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Remember: Socialization Is a Spectrum

Much like introversion and extroversion, socialization is a spectrum — which means there are options on the Friday Night Scale between hanging in your hyperbaric chamber and raving. No, you don’t want to go out to the club or to the bar with a large group of people, but maybe you’re not content to stay in by yourself tonight, either? What about hanging with a few friends in a bar that is quiet enough to have a decent conversation? What about taking yourself for a photo tour of the city or to that play you’ve been meaning to catch? This can also be a good way to pull in those more extroverted friends who might not want to spend the night in but with whom you’ve been wanting to hang out.

Chatting over mulled wine in one of our first nights as roommates

Chatting over mulled wine on one of our first nights as roommates. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Think of It as “Process Time”

For those still struggling with that internal pressure to get out, even when you want nothing more than to stay in, it can help to re-frame the concept of “staying in.” Especially during my first semester abroad, I spent many nights in my apartment, watching a movie over our “borrowed” Internet or reading a book or even just going to bed early. At the time, I could be unkind to myself regarding these nights in. Now I try to think of such periods of much-coveted solitude as time to process. Especially when traveling or studying abroad, you are taking in so much new information — new people, new places, new culture. As an introvert, I know that I need that much more time to myself at the end of the day to regroup and process. Living in a foreign country is no less exhausting for also being exhilarating.

Me "processing" on a beach on Ko Phi Phi.

Me “processing” on a beach on Ko Phi Phi. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Create Your Own Definition of “Seizing the Moment”

There are many stereotypes of what a study abroad experience should look like and be for. You don’t have to live by any definition of “seizing the moment” but your own. For me, that meant having a full academic schedule; many friends with whom I liked to visit in more casual, low-key situations; and several volunteer opportunities. I tutored two young Czech boys in English, had a Czech conversation partner with whom I conversed weekly, and was part of the International Students Club. I often went to museums, theaters, and to see films at the movie theater down the street from my apartment. I enjoyed taking walks through the nearby park; writing in my journal; and spending time at Kava Kava Kava, our local coffee shop. I traveled to 11 other countries during my weekends and breaks from school — often with real, live other people! My life studying abroad was full. Better yet, it was full based on my definition of the word.

Attending the tail-end of an all-night dance party on Koh Phangan

Attending the tail-end of an all-night dance party on Koh Phangan. Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Don’t Be Afraid to Push Yourself

Here’s the thing: Sometimes you have to just throw introversion to the wind and try something that challenges your. That’s what travel is all about: getting outside of your comfort zone. I’m definitely not saying spend every night partying. I’m still all for accepting your introversion and the social strengths and limitations that come with it, but it’s possible to listen to your intuition and challenge yourself to try new things. Maybe you can try something incredibly social once a month. Or a few times a semester. It’s up to you! For me, these social situations usually came in the form of Friday night video dance parties at the Lucerna Music Bar. It was loud. It was crowded. It was nigh near impossible to hold any kind of real conversation. Those nights did not transform me into a club-hopping fiend — quite the contrary, in fact: They reinforced the understanding that I really do prefer quieter nights. But they were fun and they were different, and for that they were good.

Kayti Burt
Blogging program mentor Kayti is a TV blogger, photographer, and chronic vagabond. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, she didn’t have much opportunity to travel as a kid, but is making up for it as an adult. She had her first long-term experience abroad in Prague on a year-long study abroad program in college. More recently, she spent three months on the “Banana Pancake Trail” in Southeast Asia. As an introverted traveler, Kayti’s favorite way to explore the world is in long, involved adventures featuring plenty of museums, plays, and ambling walks with her Canon Rebel in one hand and her journal in the other.

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