The shy person’s guide to work travel

Guinea pig
This guinea pig is shy, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

I was travelling for work this week, and I learned an important coping strategy for shy people that I’m about to share with you.

Despite your shyness, you’ve been a stellar employee at the unicorn feather wholesale firm where you work, and you’ve been promoted. Congratulations!

Enjoy that corner office with the leather couch (not unicorn leather), the personal assistant, and the extra zero in your pay cheque (hopefully at the end, not the start).

But before you pop open a bottle of champagne, you might want to consider the downside of your promotion: you’ll be expected to travel for work.

That means dealing with airports and taxi drivers, and discussing the ins and outs of unicorn feather distribution systems with complete strangers. I know you can come to grips with this, traumatic though it might seem at first.

But it gets worse. There will come a time when you’ve said everything that can possibly be said about unicorn feathers, and the conversation will devolve into small talk. You will be among strangers in a professional situation, and you’ll be expected to chat with person after person about nothing of substance, possibly for hours, without offending anyone so much that they break off all future dealings with your company. If possible, without even allowing an awkward silence to develop.

Mull over that for a minute.

Tall corporate building
This is an intimidating building, and the people inside will want you to talk to them.

If you’re anything like me, this idea fills you with dread. Thankfully, I’ve discovered the solution. I’ll offer you three possibilities that you can pick from depending on your level of commitment.

1. Have an earthquake at home

Commitment level: high

I don’t mean have an earthquake on the day you’re supposed to fly out so you can’t travel. I mean a few days earlier. Up to a few months or even a year will work, but the longer the time lag between the earthquake and your travel, the more damaging the earthquake has to be. Beyond a year, your city must have been flattened.

Once you’ve accomplished your earthquake (and I suggest putting in a request well in advance of your desired date, because the red tape is a nightmare), spend a few days reading about it in the local news. This won’t seem like work, because if you’re anything like me you’ll want to know.

Learn the stats. Look at the pictures. How strong was the earthquake, how deep, how far away, what kind of shaking was it? What were the effects? Did anyone die? What damage occurred? Who and what was disrupted? What are the scientists saying? What are the astrologers saying? Which Greek god most likely caused it? How many cows were stuck on a hill and were they ever rescued?

Don’t feel guilty for reading disaster porn. It’s your city and your earthquake.

Before you leave for your trip, come up with a story about your own earthquake experience. Did you sleep through the whole thing? Were you evacuated in the middle of the night because of tsunami risk? Did you pull a dog from the rubble? Did you spend six days on a ferry that couldn’t come in to port and get so hungry you turned to cannibalism?

Remember, it’s a story. Truth is relative. (Except with respect to my story. My story is true.)

Now, back to your trip. When you’re stuck in a room with two senior executives and you need to fill the silence with conversation, all you need to do is raise the topic of the earthquake. An adequate way to start is a simple, “Wasn’t the earthquake in (city) terrible?” or “Wasn’t it lucky there was so little damage in the earthquake recently?”

Trust me, this will ignite a conversation that you’ll struggle to stop. They’ll want to know, you’ll have answers. You’ll have your own story and all that news sitting at the top of your mind. You may even have opinions on what you’re talking about. Remember, opinions can’t be wrong. Stupid, yes. Wrong, no. Share them all.

Even if the executives have read all the news stories you’ve read, you’ll be able to “oh dear” and “how terrible” over it together.

If they felt the earthquake you’ll compare notes. You’ll sympathise with each other and wonder about the future of your cities.

No matter how shy you are, you will be able to talk about this. There’s nothing like bonding over mass destruction.

A broken window
The worse your city is broken, the greater the conversation opportunity.

That’s option one, and it requires a high level of commitment. If you’re not quite up to this, you have an alternative that’s almost as good.

2. Have an earthquake where your friends or family live

Commitment level: medium

This will be your earthquake by proxy. Read all the news as in option one, and talk to your friends and family to collect their stories. When you report them, use “my friend”, or “my uncle”, rather than “I”. The closer the relationship, the more useful the earthquake will be for conversation. So “third cousin” should become “brother” and “great aunt” should become “mother”. Other than that, the process is exactly the same as above.

You might be dubious how well this approach will work. Trust me, it does. I used it to get through two weeks of travel a few months after the 2010 Christchurch earthquake, even though I’d been on the other side of the world when it happened. Having that earthquake to talk about saved my skin.

But I know no one likes the idea of their friends or family being in an earthquake, so you may instead want to use the third option.

3. Have an earthquake somewhere

Commitment level: low

Then what? Read about it, invent a relative who experienced it and fabricate her story from bits and pieces you pick up in the news.

Again, closer relatives make for better conversation. You may find yourself with an army of siblings you didn’t know you had. I hope some of them survived.

If you’re human, you might feel bad about using someone else’s disaster to avoid an awkward silence. This seems like a good use of disasters to me (how many better uses can you come up with?), but if it doesn’t to you there’s an easy way to wipe out that guilt. Donate some money–the Red Cross is sure to start a collection to help the victims. Then everyone wins.

Happy people drinking
Everyone wins (and most people get to drink, once the government fixes their water supply).

I’ve only talked about earthquakes because all my personal experiences have related to them. Other disasters, such as swarms of locusts or sulphur raining from the sky, may work just as well, but I can’t tell you for sure.

Armed with the powerful information I’ve given you, you’re set to handle any work travel that might come with your promotion, so open that champagne and go forth and conquer.

Do you suffer this fear of small talk with strangers? Do you have any conversational strategies that have helped you get through it?

If you want to hear more of my super-useful life advice, you can follow this blog from the sidebar, or limit your emails and instead get my monthly summary here.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

4 thoughts on “The shy person’s guide to work travel”

  1. I loathe small talk with strangers – luckily these days I don’t tend to have to do it a lot. When I was working on dive boats and charter yachts, I quite often made up stories and legends about the islands. I guess that’s kind of a grey moral area – I probably should have looked up some more accurate history. But telling people Shark’s Tooth Rock was a fossilised dinosaur shark tooth, and that the shark had been the size of the island itself, was far more fun that saying, “It’s because it’s shaped like a shark’s tooth”…

    1. I loathe it too. Fortunately I’m a lot better at it now than I used to be, but I was still relieved on this trip where I hardly had to come up with anything to talk about because we just talked about earthquakes.

      That’s a great story about Shark’s Tooth Rock. Would anyone believe it’s actually true? I think telling stories that are clearly stories is fine because it’s understood they’re just for entertainment.

  2. Thank you for this splendid advice! 😀 Finally a solution to the small talk problem. I’m always relieved to see I’m not the only one who’s terrified of talking to people. But I need to move to a more exciting part of the globe. The only proper disaster we experience in Central Europe are floods and even they seem to be avoiding me. Never even got my feet wet so far. In the meantime I probably have to resort #3. and stay informed about the latest disasters in the world.

    1. Glad to help. 🙂 I don’t know why they decided talking to people should be so terrifying. At least we have the web nowadays, so we almost never have to. If the internet could just make my coffee, I’d be set.

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