STEPHEN SCOURFIELD's tips for the socially anxious
Too much conversation and not enough action?
If you’re travelling as “a couple”, will you end up sitting on your own for every meal and feel isolated?
If you’re shy, will you be forced on to tables with strangers? Will you be getting dressed in your room dreading the next two awkward hours over a meal?
Will you walk into the lounge and feel odd if you sit along, but not have the confidence to “invite yourself” to join people already seated?
Being forced into one big group of usually 100 or so people who will be together for several days makes some travellers nervous about river cruising. While they can see the advantages, a lot of people over the years have told me it’s the social situation that makes them most nervous and agitated.
Most ships will have a main restaurant where most meals are served.
Breakfast may be a buffet with an “egg station”. There may be a buffet lunch, with some a la carte items served from the kitchen. Then dinner, of course, which will usually be a two-hour affair.
But for those meal times when you want a little quiet, but still feel hungry, there will often be other ways to dine — a small lounge at the aft with all-day snacks, a cafe-style area at the front of the ship. There may be room service or the chance to just ask if you can have a simple meal brought to your cabin.
For those concerned about social challenges, there are some tricks and tips.
- Just start with your name, and really concentrate and remember theirs. Don’t let the moment pass so that, the second after they’ve said it, you think “damn, I missed that”. Think of it like this — apart from turning up on time for tour departures, it’s your only job on river cruises. Americans are very good at it — so many look you in the eye, smile warmly and say: “Hi… my name’s Joe.” (New York accent, of course.) There’s no better start.
- If you have a nickname, you might use it, as a starting point for conversation. (Explaining why redheads are nicknamed “Blue” and called “Rangas” in Australia is a whole conversation.) Sometimes I simplify my name. Stephen is a crazy mix of letters for some cultures and “p+h=v” just doesn’t make sense. So I introduce myself as Stefan. “Scourfield” doesn’t make sense anywhere, really, and sometimes in Asia and Africa, I just simplify it to the easier and more memorable “Soccerfield”, and make a joke of it.
- Now, if you haven’t picked up on the other person’s accent, go to the classic: “Where are you from?” And we have a big advantage here. Western Australia is an extraordinary place to explain (particularly if you’re in Europe). It’s five full days drive from the south coast to north. It’s where life began, in the Pilbara. Kings Park is bigger than Central Park. Have something to say.
- For the shy, just hold this comfortable thought: You can always listen more than you speak. Most people like an audience. You can just be that.
- Avoid opening with an opinion. “I’m really enjoying the food on board.” Their response can go either way. If they reply: “I think it’s been a bit bland. My meal last night was terrible. I think the staff are struggling.” You run the risk of just launching a downward spiral.
- Wear something yourself that invites conversation — a kangaroo broach orT-shirt with a map or Australia.
- A word of advice for conversations with Americans at the moment, is to not bring up politics.
Men and women
Some women spend a lot of time in female company, and men have their mates, so travelling as a couple can actually feel quite isolating. The nature of river cruising and the number of guests is a good solution for this. Quite often, I have seen, particularly, “ladies’ groups” form to chat, and even go off on excursions together when their men don’t want to. I’ve seen men in the quiet “early breakfast” lounge chatting over morning tea at a time they might previously have been ready for work.
I’m in the small aft lounge of a river cruise ship, where there’s always a light breakfast from 6am. There are just four men here, a couple reading the on-board “newspaper” — the world’s news digested to one sheet, one looking at the BBC website on his mobile, another just staring out of the window, watching the bank go by. There’s not much conversation, just a mostly unspoken companionship. But this is where men often make connections. When they cross paths in the day, they’re meeting their morning buddies. Most ships have a small, more informal, baguette or toast, cheese and meats, fruit and yoghurt early breakfast set up, and it’s a good place for men to meet other men.
River cruising is good for singles. When you arrive at the restaurant, staff will often ask if you want to sit alone or join a table, and well trained staff with good companies are adept at making up “singles’ round tables”. Friendships are quickly and easily formed, as staff will be aware of nationality and become good at “spotting types”. There’s a real skill in this, and I’ve seen it in action over and over again.
Once these connections are established, their concerns about walking into a half-full lounge or restaurant evaporate — someone will catch your eye and pat the seat of the empty chair next to them.
So, the wash-up of all this is not to feel too reluctant or nervous about the social aspects of river cruising. For a start, most river cruise ships in Europe will have between, say, 100 and 150 guests. This is important for the socially apprehensive — as there are enough guests that you won’t get locked into one group and can “move around”, and if you are on a big cruise ship, you can be lost and lonely in the crowd. Some might like the familiarity of forming a bond with just one small group, and making sure they are all on the same tours and same tables. But I also see the nice opportunity for moving around and making new friends. Even the shy and socially anxious will have a better time than they expected.