Listening to another person’s vacation stories is notoriously torturous. An immediate wave of regret washes over you as soon as the question “How was your trip?” escapes your lips. Why did you ask this? There was no need to bait a person fresh off their trip to Peru to tell you about a magical time which you were not part of.
The loathing of vacation stories is a curious phenomenon because of our obsession with travel; it’s what we daydream about and save our money to do, and our interest in it can make us more appealing to the opposite sex. Which is perhaps why sitting through a vacation story is so infuriating: It represents the worst way to experience something you aspire to do — by hearing how someone else did it.
Even though everyone knows the pain of sitting through a too-long-before-it-even-started travel story, everyone has also told one. We’ve all witnessed a person’s eyes glaze over while we go into details that were absolutely intriguing in our head, but evidently not out loud. So why are travel stories the thing we can’t stop telling, even though we hate to hear them?
Many invest in experiences because they can connect us to others
First, it’s important to understand why people value experiences. According to a 2014 study that investigated the link between experiential purchases and happiness, people gain greater satisfaction from experiential goods (seeing a movie, taking a vacation etc.), because they believe experiences, not possessions, are most reflective of who they are.
So when someone talks about their recent trip, they are actually talking about themselves, which is scientifically proven to be rewarding. According to a Harvard study, it causes neural activity in areas of the brain most associated with the pleasurable feelings linked to sex, cocaine, and good food. Researchers also found that it was irrelevant whether anyone was listening; talking about yourself is inherently enjoyable regardless of the audience or lack thereof.
Another reason people value experiences, according to the 2014 study, is because of their ability to facilitate relationships. Experiences were rated higher on the enjoyment scale because they “more readily, more broadly, and more deeply connect us to others.”
In one experiment, pairs of unacquainted participants were given 20 minutes to converse freely about purchases. Half were told to only talk about material purchases, like televisions or clothes, and the other half were told to talk about experiential purchases. Results proved that participants liked the conversation and their conversational partner better if they talked about experiences, not stuff.
But there is a tipping point where experiences become too unique and therefore unrelatable: take a safari in South Africa, for example. In the 2014 study “The Unforeseen Cost of Extraordinary Experience,” researchers state that extraordinary experiences may ultimately “reclaim more joy than they provide.” The study found that those who had an extraordinary experience ultimately wished they had an ordinary experience instead, so they would be able to relate to their peers.
Further, people never predicted correctly when asked if they thought others would be interested in their extraordinary experience — they always said “yes.” Reality proved the opposite.
A 2017 study found that storytellers often think people enjoy being told new information, but in reality, people are more likely to enjoy a story if they are familiar with the subject matter. In fact, storytellers who include too much unique information receive a “novelty penalty,” meaning people liked their stories less.
This research implies that we all have an inability to recognize when our experiences are too extraordinary for others to relate; hence, why you get stuck in conversations with your co-worker about her trip to the Blue Lagoon.
Vacation stories are a one-sided conversation
Relationship psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby says people are generally pretty self-absorbed, which is why it doesn’t register that no one wants to hear every single detail of their recent trip. “Growing up, my dad had a projector and he would make people who came over watch a 45-minute slideshow of our trip to Pittsburg,” she says. “It’s total self-absorption and narcissism.” To her, the telling of vacation stories is rooted in people’s misconception that because something is important to them, it means it is universally important.
She also said that in order for deeper intimacy to develop between people, there needs to be reciprocal sharing, which is hard when a conversation is about one person’s experience. “One person will say, ‘I just got back from Portugal and had an amazing experience,’ and another will mirror that by saying they went to London and had an amazing experience and there is a disconnect,” she says. Simply put, if one party can’t seamlessly hop in the conversation, it’s a bad conversation.
Taking an informal survey of my friends, reasons for not wanting to hear about others’ travel varied. One friend from Columbia, Missouri, said it was due to envy. Another friend from St. Louis said that hearing vacation stories is like “hearing about a dream” — it doesn’t affect you, and the stories usually aren’t that good anyway. Many said travel stories can often come off as a humblebrag or a way to get the attention of the opposite sex, and that any story told for either of those purposes is inherently annoying.
Travel psychologist Michael Brein says that sharing travel stories gives people an increased sense of self-confidence and a distinction among their peers. “It gives you the opportunity to share something you have earned, and people like to be seen by others as having accomplished something of value — something others don’t have the opportunity to experience.” In other words, they know others can’t relate, but that’s not the point of telling the story.
Brein added that who is telling the story matters, something my friends echoed.
A friend from New York says when he thinks of boring vacation stories, he imagines them being told in an office environment by a co-worker and that if he was hearing it from someone he was closer to, it might not be so boring.
Another friend from Brooklyn said if it was a close friend, she absolutely wants to hear every detail, but all travel stories from acquaintances sound the same to her. “No one ever has good stories or insights, but maybe they just don’t think to tell me [about them] because I’m also an acquaintance and they’re not invested in me knowing about their experiences anyway,” she said.
Far-off destinations pepper everyone’s bucket list, and listening to a vacation story can feel like a jab of mortality — a reminder that you haven’t accomplished what someone else found the time for. You stage excitement but, internally, a mix of jealousy and boredom overwhelm any sincere interest.
Yet we’ve all been guilty of inflicting this exact pain on another person, of letting our own self-absorption convince us our travel tales are somehow more interesting than someone else’s. So perhaps instead of complaining about people’s vacation stories, we should make a pact to focus on our own travels — and to stay quiet about them after.