Susannah is an art dealer just returning home from a week in Basel, Switzerland, collecting pieces from a show. Ashley is on a short holiday between her study abroad trip to Rwanda and returning to school in New Jersey. Dominic is the only guy with a group of girls celebrating the end of exams at the university they all go to in Northern Ireland.
Stories are part of the travel experience
My homework was to use a type of questioning, narrative inquiry, to elicit stories instead of the usual direct method. The assignment was part of my master’s program class in Storytelling & Narrative Persuasion instructed by storytelling expert Thaler Pekar. The subject matter could be anything from business to family stories, and I had originally wanted to interview travel bloggers for the project about a post on solo traveling. After some disappointing non-responses, I decided to use the technique to still focus on travel, just in another way.
I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people in our travels, hearing about their adventures and learning from them. It’s one of my overall favorite parts of traveling. I wanted to see how the NI method would work in striking up these types of conversations with fellow travelers we met along the way.
Who we met
Chris and I were spending our weekend in Amsterdam, our first time in Holland. There was some confusion when we were checking in for our flight, and we ended up sitting in different sections of the plane. This presented my first chance to try out NI. I usually share in small chat with my seatmates, but I was a bit nervous about plunging into deep background with a total stranger. I started off small with Susannah the Art Dealer. Where was she from? An Amsterdam native. Where was she coming from? An art show in Basel. Did she have any suggestions where we should go in the city? Make sure we took a canal tour. Then I went for it. I asked her if she could tell me about her favorite trip. It didn’t go quite as smoothly as I expected. I was hoping for a story that would shed light on what she liked; what types of activities interested her; any insight that would tell me more about her. Instead she told me her favorite trips were to Cartagena, Colombia and the Tuscany area of Italy. That was it. I decided not to give up, though, and before the hour-and-a-half flight from Zurich to Amsterdam was complete, she did tell me the story of how she got into art dealing. With an entrepreneurial spirit, Susannah, with the help of her artist husband, decided to start collecting and dealing in art after seeing an exhibit in Asian art at the Rijks Museum. She soon after booked a trip to China and Japan, hooking up with a group of artists there quite unexpectedly, and has been specializing in Asian art for the past 30 years.
After parting ways with Susannah, we made our way to check into our hostel in the Red Light District. With 20 beds in the room, this was the biggest hostel room I’ve stayed in yet. Since I recovered from my first hostel experience in 2007 that was a disaster, it took Chris five years and us moving out of the U.S. to try again. My first hostel was in Brazil last fall, and I immediately fell in love with them. Bad or good, you meet so many intriguing people in these overnight barracks for budget travelers.
I first encountered our bunk neighbor, Ashley, when a group of Americans were talking in the middle of the room. We started chatting about our travels, and I thought she was one brave lady taking her first trip out of the U.S. to go on a school trip to help university students in Rwanda. I broke yet another preconceived notion, which you do a lot in traveling, about the African country I thought was nothing but a raging civil war. She assured me it’s actually quite safe, and she felt no danger there. I stepped into NI by asking Ashley what her favorite experience in Rwanda was. She told me the touchy story of how she taught the Rwandan students how to play on a swing set, something they had never done before. Check out her rendition below (sorry for the background noise, the Americans were busy swapping stories with the Irishman).
Dominic, his girlfriend, Maria, and her three roommates, Clare, Ciara and Tara, were in our room, and we shared stories from how their university houses students in an area called the Holy Land to Dominic’s concerns about undertaking a non-paid internship next semester in England. Though I don’t remember consciously using the NI method on any of them, we shared many stories throughout the course of the weekend. My favorite and most educational was when we were discussing how the same English words have completely different meanings in the U.S. and Northern Ireland. While I shared my embarrassing story of how my mother once used “fanny” with an English officer, Tara related her story of asking for a “rubber” one day in class during her high school exchange in Texas.
How to elicit stories, not just facts
Meeting people and hearing their stories is a remarkable experience. Not only do you learn from them, but you have a crop of stories to draw from when meeting others. When the subject of expat living comes up, I still like to tell people about our friend Tom. A native of South Africa, we met Tom in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro where he told us what it was like to work for a French company in Saudi Arabia.
How can you gather your own travel stories?
1. Be curious
There is a quote that goes something like “to improve your life, take a sincere interest in others,” and I’ve come to realize the absolute truth in this statement. To gather stories, you must show a willingness and desire to obtain them.
Though I haven’t seen it, yet, I’ve been told the documentary “The Stories We Tell” (I have to admit, I got the idea for the post’s title from this) by Sarah Polley is an excellent movie. Without Polley’s genuine curiosity, we wouldn’t have this award-winning film.
2. Don’t be afraid to talk to people
I’m not the most extroverted person, but I try to strike up a conversation whenever and wherever I can. You never know who you might just meet or where that conversation might lead.
During our weekend in Amsterdam, we were sat at a crowded café across the table from a couple that looked to be about our age. They didn’t seem to be the talkative type, but there was a break in the noise, and I decided to test the waters. Really, what was the worst that could happen? They tell me to bugger off? Fine, I would probably never see them again anyways. As it turned out, the woman worked in Zurich, and the man was a political Public Relations consultant in Brussels. We had an interesting conversation about some stakeholder research he was doing for the Belgium government, and we discussed his measuring techniques; quite a relevant topic for me since I’m taking a PR Measurement and Evaluation class this semester.
3. Don’t just ask the 5 Ws
When trying to elicit story, you have to change your line of questioning. This is what NI is all about. In PR, I was trained to directly ask the who, what, where, when and why. This indeed gives you information, but it’s just data. To get to the meaning and insight that can come from story, try asking people to tell you about their favorite trips, how they came to be in their professions, or something that gives you more information than just the straight facts.
While I still struggle with getting too personal and the vulnerability that storytelling creates, I’m beginning to seek out more understanding in my line of questioning by asking more than just what there is on the surface. When we were standing in the hour-and-a-half line to enter the Anne Frank House, we chatted up an older couple from Massachusetts on vacation before they left the next day for a religious trip to Israel. We first started talking as typical chitchat goes, but then I slipped into NI, asking for them to tell me about their back story, how they met, where they came from, etc. By the time we were at the ticket desk, they had shared how their ancestors immigrated into the U.S. from Russia and Poland at the turn of the 20th Century, and if they hadn’t, they may have also died with Anne Frank in a concentration camp. A story like that stops you in your tracks. NI can be uncomfortable, but when you’re rewarded with unforgettable stories, it’s well worth it.
I would love to hear your own travel stories. Share them in the comments below.