The Psychology of Travel


“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is an adage that is repeated almost daily at among service industry workers across America.  Anyone that has worked in a hotel knows this adage well. The squeaky wheels are our rant and ravers, the adults that throw child-like temper tantrums.  They scream and throw things, and they call the employee before them every profane name they can think up to get what they want.  Squeaky wheels know that the standards of the service industry are set up in such a way that no self-respecting manager is going to allow a squeaky wheel to stand at their desk and create a spectacle.  They know that these standards are designed to appease the screaming minority that call corporate offices and write letters.  Squeaky wheels also know that frustrated, low-level employees –those that want to rebel against these standards and treat the screaming minority in the same manner they treat the more deferential majority— are mere stepping stones to a manager that will step in and just give the squeaky wheels all the grease they need applied to make them go away.

8381997708_5b9f70d6de_b“Imagine what it must be like to live like that every day of your life,” the front desk manager informed me after my frustrations reached a boiling point with one particular shrieking wheel, and the favorable treatment he received from the manager after the man acted like a petulant child that wanted a lollipop.  ‘You’re not going to get anything if you continue to act that way young man,’ was my stance, but my manager stepped in and gave away the farm.

The gist of my frustration was that there was no discernible punishment for the man/child that stood before me.  I grew up believing that there was a social, karmic contract that we all enter into where we attempt to treat others the way we want to be treated, and character is defined by how we treat those that can do nothing for us.  Watching the way this man acted, and the way management reacted, led me to believe that those standards are nothing but mottos that we’ve developed to keep the rubes in line, while the shrieking minority walks away with all the spoils.  The gist of my more reasonable manager’s reply was that this shrieking wheel’s punishment for acting the way he did, was having to live the way he presumably lives.

“A person cannot be that obnoxiously miserable,” he stated, “without being obnoxiously miserable.”

No one involved in this obnoxiously miserable man’s spectacle knew what happened to him after his issue was resolved, but we came to the conclusion that the remaining moments of his vacation would be miserable, because he was miserable, and the greatest impediment to him having an enjoyable vacation was the decision he made to take him with him on this trip.

Happy people tend to get lost in the shuffle in the course of a day at a hotel.  They do not have chocolate truffle apologies sent to their room by the manager, they do not have extra-amenities lying in wait for them in their room, and they will not gain the sense of satisfaction that the miserable must gain by conquering an eighteen-year-old service industry employee’s desire to do everything they can to avoid rewarding the obnoxiously miserable.  Happy people are rewarded in all of the intangible ways everyone knows, but some it appears, would rather have a chocolate truffle.

It’s been my experience, working at a hotel in a decidedly non-tourist spot, that happy people can have great, enjoyable vacations no matter where they decide to travel, whom they vacation with, or what their vacation destination has to offer.  Their happiness is so infectious that it bleeds over into their daily life, in much the same manner misery does for the miserable.  To the happy, the very idea of travel is unnecessary.  It’s a luxury that they enjoy to its fullest extent.  The miserable, however, can find something to be miserable about in the most luxurious, five-star destination spots the world has to offer, because they make the unfortunate decision to take them, and all of their baggage, with them on vacation.

No vacation can make a person happier, or any more miserable, than they already are.  The weather will not act according to plan, everything will be more expensive than calculated, some members of the service industry will be miserable jerks in a manner that makes a vacation more miserable, and a vacationer will run into some unreasonable jerks –in the general population of the locale to which you travel– because these people always seem to find the miserable.  It’s been my experience, on both sides of the travel industry, that Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong) will come into play whenever one decides to go on a vacation.  I’ve also learned that Murphy’s law doesn’t apply to places and things as much as it applies to people, miserable people that seek out misery.

If you are one of these miserable people, and you’ve arrived at the realization that the greatest obstacle to having a great time on vacation is that you have to take you with you, you may want to consider another course of action that will save you, and those you encounter on vacation, a great deal of headache and heartache by finding some way to avoid taking you with you.  If that means staying home and watching TV, stay home and watch TV.  You can complain about the dwindling number of shrimp in your takeout, or the amount of commercials on TV, from the comfort of your own home, and you won’t have to ruin a vacation for all the happy people around you that enjoy all that life has to offer.

Head in the Sand Gains

Traveling will not change a person, their intelligence level, or any personality traits that are endemic to character.  If a person believes that the only way one can know anything about the Vadoma tribe of western Zimbabwe (derogatorily called “The Ostrich People”) is to travel there and shake hands with a tribal leader, they’re mistaken by a matter of degree.  They may be able to use the line: “Oh, you simply must visit the Vadoma people personally.  Gluck Gluck, the tribal chief, is an amiable host” for the rest of your life.  It may enrich a life somewhat to touch the Ectrodactyly-ridden toes of the fraction of this tribe that suffers from the ostrich-like condition, and that may provide a person a conversation piece that lasts the rest of their life that centers around the smell of their refuse, the particular foods that they eat, and the opportunity they had to share that quaint meal with the tribe, or they may even gain a perspective on their life that gives them a renewed appreciation of the extravagances life has afforded them, but they will not become smarter, happier, or more miserable by travel alone.

There are people –and they know who they are— that believe that they are somehow worldlier, smarter, and more experienced than others based on the quantity and quality of their travels.

“How would you know?” a world traveler once asked me in a debate, completely unrelated to travel.  “You haven’t traveled extensively.”

Few people are as bold, or as stark as that, but there does appear to be an element of this mindset in most world travelers.  We should all take a moment out of our lives to inform them that greater intelligence is derived by the manner in which one approaches a subject.  If a person is one that already knows most of what there is to know about everything, and I think we can say that based on our experience with most world travelers that they approach most subjects with this mindset, their prospects for greater intelligence are probably going to be limited.  If their general nature is such that they approach various subjects without ego, and an insatiable curiosity, their intelligence level may reach a “boundless” characterization by those that listen to them, and this can be accomplished without travel.

This person that questioned my level of intelligence, based on comparatively limited travels, appeared to believe that by traveling in tour groups –on the yellow brick roads that the travel industry built to allow them to view the indigenous people of third world countries from behind proverbial velvet ropes that protected them from “icky” involvement with the indigenous, and basically allowed them to view indigenous people in the manner zoo patrons might view a rhinoceros— that she was somehow smarter, or worldlier than me.  She was there, in western Zimbabwe, and no one can ever take that away from her, but she didn’t eat with the people, sleep with them, or spend any significant amount of time with them.  She viewed them in the manner baboons are viewed at the zoo, refraining —we can only assume— from tossing them peanuts.

“I did it for the experience,” is something she might have said.  “I did it to be a well-rounded character that has a greater perspective about the world.” 

No one can deny these possibilities, but listening to her one can’t help but think that she took this particular, third world vacation with an unspoken enthusiasm for the mileage it might gain her in the face of those that haven’t.  What good is taking such a vacation, if a person doesn’t talk about it, feel worldlier in its aftermath, and lord it over those that haven’t taken such an excursion?

If this is not enough for a world traveler, and that world traveler wants to view a world beyond the proverbial velvet ropes that line the chamber of commerce’s yellow brick road, and they want to step into the world of adventurous travel, they may want to check to make sure they have an American, OHBM (outrageously hot, blonde mom) in their tour group.  If there isn’t one, find the closest thing, and ask her husband if they’d like to join you on your adventurous excursion.  The reason for this is that no country –that makes any revenue from tourism— wants to see their country mentioned in the U.S. media, and there’s nothing the U.S. media loves more than a “Something happened to an American OHBM” story.  When something happens to an American overseas, it makes the news.  Depending on the severity of what happened, the story may only make the local news and a few internet outlets, but the ability to tell a heart wrenching “Something happened to an American OHBM” story, coupled with the image of that OHBM, might just land the story Malaysian Airlines flight 370 style coverage.  One has to guess that the minute a member of a country’s chamber of commerce gets one look at this OHBM, they might assign her some armed forces to make sure she isn’t so much as spoken to by the indigenous.

Know Thyself, Know Thy Family

Family reunion vacations offer a far less dangerous adventure, of course, but even they can also yield some life-altering moments that could change our perspective on them if we remain open to the idea that our loved ones might be miserable people too.  This is not a natural inclination for most people know their people better than anyone else.  We may acknowledge the idea that every family has one person that is a little angst-ridden, but when we’re forced to travel with these people that we know and love, we witness a side of them we never saw before.

Those of us that have been in the service industry have been exposed to a side of humanity that is confusing, chaotic, and diametrically opposed to our way of thinking, but we take comfort in the idea that we can always return home to family.  We know our family, and we have a firmer grasp on how those people we were raised with think.  We may reserve some space for individual variance, but we cling to the idea that those that have ventured too far from the path will eventually have a redemptive “come to Jesus” moment that brings them back.  We may believe that that redemptive moment will be laced with regret, but even if it’s not, we continue to hope that that moment will arrive before it’s too late.  They usually don’t for reasons that are completely foreign to us.  They usually don’t, because some people don’t believe that they’re been headed on a wrong course.  It’s their course, and if they knew where they were headed, they would’ve corrected their course long before the need for a redemptive moment arrived.  What usually happens, per my experience in such matters, is that the finger crossers realize they don’t know these people half as well as they thought.  These people are miserable, angry people that have some psychological underpinnings that prevent them from acknowledging what everyone else sees, and they have to live with themselves, but so do we.

We’ve all witnessed redemptive moments arrive for the subjects of our concern, and we’ve waited on half a bun while their “sure to arrive” realization tottered on the cusp.  We’ve witnessed all of the past events that should’ve led them to a realization, and some of us have even had others corroborate our version of those events, in the company of our subjects.  To our utter amazement, these people manage to move away from their vulnerability on the matter, they may offer some sort of excuse regarding their involvement, or they may inform those concerned that they had no involvement in the matter.  They may even accuse those of us that suggest that they have any vulnerability on the matter of either rewriting history, or being limited in our view on the matter.  Long story short, those waiting for an “aha!” moment where the subject comes to the realization that they’ve been doing it wrong in ways large or small, are rarely granted satisfaction.

Bill Murray has stated that if you are considering a wedding proposal, it might be a good idea to take that person on a long, extended trip with them before doing so.  “Travel the world with them,” Murray suggests. The import of this suggestion has less to do with traveling, and more to do with being cooped up with another individual on a plane, in transferring flights, setting up hotel stays, visiting sites together, and in all of the interactions where that can allow a person to view another, outside that person’s element.  Watch how they engage with service industry employees. Examine the trip, in the aftermath, and gauge how they conducted themselves throughout.  Did they make the most out of everyday?  Were some stops viewed as meager compared to the highlights this trip offered?  And finally, how did your prospective mate describe the trip to others after it was completed?  Did they lord it over people that they had been to one particular location that the others had not? Coupled with all the virtues and pleasantries of travel, are the stresses and strains, and how that person deals with them can define them in ways that may not be apparent in those situations where they are able to keep their best foot forward.  The point of the Murray suggestion, given in a prospective groom’s toast, was that people thinking about getting married should place their prospective mate in situations where they don’t know anyone else is looking.  It may give a person some insight into whether their prospective mate is a happy person or a miserable person before they invite that person to join them in their journey through life, and how that journey might end up being a happier one if they decide not to take them with them.

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