The loneliness of the digital nomad
I have been traveling for years. Throughout my journey, I have met all kinds of travelers. Lone wolves, couples, and even a group of friends who traveled together. Regardless of their backgrounds, age or country of origin, one common topic popped up in most conversations: the loneliness of the digital nomad lifestyle.
Nomad VS expat VS traveler
When I turned 30, I had an existential crisis. I was not a young 20-something little boy anymore. I bought a ticket to Iceland, rented a jeep and spent one month traveling through the ring road, exploring the beautiful island. Alone. I slept on farms along the road. Without Google Maps, or Apple Maps, Whatsapp or Facebook. It was 2010. My only companions were my old Nokia and a backpack.
Along the way, I managed to make some friends. Mainly people from the farms, or at a local Sigur Ros event. I spent 2-3 days in Reykjavik, and I even made some friends at the Kaffibarinn.
I was a traveler. A tourist if you like. Obviously, the dynamics are different when you are an expat. You have moved to a new city and plan to stay there long-term. You can even afford to learn the language and make friends. As a traveler, I did not need to make any friends, even when I made some. I was on a self-discovery trip. Most travelers or tourists don’t bother making friends. They are with you or wait for you to come back home.
However, when you are a digital nomad, you find yourself in an uncomfortable middle ground. You are staying long enough to need some social life, but you are not going to stay enough to make long-lasting relationships. Some locals may not want to bother being friends with you if you are going to leave in a couple of months.
In this scenario, it’s easy to feel lonely.
Loneliness is demonized
I am lucky: I travel with my husband. As a couple, it’s much more easy. You never really feel alone. However, before I met my soulmate, I was a lone wolf.
I’ve always been an introvert. I am perfectly happy spending Saturday night in front of my computer, programming, reading, or writing a blog post here on Micropreneur Life. I rarely have the urge to go to a bar and socialize to feel better, and I never understood how spending the night drinking and dancing is globally accepted as the paradigm of fun. Did that sound too boring?
However, I acknowledge most people need a lot more social life than I do. Especially extroverts. We are social animals after all. One of the most important aspect of our lives is meeting others and sharing things with them.
But sometimes I get this feeling that loneliness is demonized. Nobody wants to be alone, right? Or do they?
Once I was in a post-rock band with one friend. The band was just the two of us. One day, having a coffee, he confessed that he preferred to be alone, and felt anxious if hanging out with more than one friend at a time. He is one of the most calm and reasonable persons I’ve met in my life.
Not all of us are party animals. There are people who prefer loneliness. And that’s ok.
Are you lonely?
So depending on whether you are an extrovert or introvert, traveling can be more difficult for you. Introverts don’t need people as much as extroverts do, but they need to do an extra effort to make friends or meet people when they travel.
Even if you travel with somebody else, like I do, or you are just happy in the company of a good book and a cup of tea, all digital nomads may face loneliness sooner or later.
And while there’s nothing wrong with loneliness, feeling lonely for long periods of time can lead to social isolation, sadness or depression. Eventually, we all need to get out and talk to someone.
In the case of a digital nomad, you need to make it work. We are the only ones responsible for our loneliness, and we are the only ones who can stop it. I know it is not easy, especially in a foreign country, in a new town with people who may not even speak fluent English. But it is ultimately you who can get you out of that situation. How?
How to cope with loneliness
Believe it or not, there is a lot of people out there willing to meet new people, hang out with them and share a coffee or a couple of beers. Some of them may feel as lonely as you.
Find people online
We live in the social era. If you use social media, there are plenty of resources available, like Facebook groups. If you, like me, have pulled the plug on social media, there are still places like Meetup where you can find likeminded people. Look for expat meetings, digital nomad groups, co-working, and co-living communities, etc.
Obviously, some places are better than others for this. In small cities, it may be challenging to find online communities to join.
As an example, a quick search on meetup for Rijeka shows only six local groups. One of them is just a local English teacher advertising himself. Two others are in Croatian, and there’s a Microsoft Developer User Group I won’t comment on (speak no evil…). So unless you are into marketing or riding a bike, you are out of luck. Then, what do you do?
Meet people offline
Get outside! Go to a bar, coffee, or to the beach. Work in a co-working space. Go to a gym. Don’t just go to those places. Socialize. Talk to other human beings. Look for someone who is as bored as you are and start a conversation.
Now, if you are an introvert, I can hear you cringe. Talking to people I don’t know? Are you mad???
Well, if you are a nomad, you are a brave person. You are used to staying outside of your comfort zone. You left your home town, sold most of your stuff, packed up your belongings in a suitcase, and booked a flight without knowing what the future held for you. Approaching someone who is sipping coffee in your co-working is not going to kill you.
As I mentioned, it’s only you who can stop your loneliness. I am extremely shy. The first time I had to approach a stranger and say hi I almost died of embarrassment. But it gets better. If you are anything like me, I can recommend you this inspiring TED talk by Jia Jiang, in which he describes an experiment he made to get used to rejection and awkward situations.
Throw the first stone
If you can’t find groups of people or communities to join online, why not starting yours? Open a Facebook group or create a new meetup.
If you have a hobby, like horror movies or playing football, try that. It is always easier to connect with people who share your interests.
Otherwise, just start a “digital nomads in XXX” group, or an “English speaking meeting” one. Look for a good cafe or nice place to meet and write an interesting proposal. Who are you? What are you looking for? What do you want to do? Why? What do you propose?
Don’t be disappointed if nobody shows up or you meet a freak or two. I once started a meetup group for micropreneurs in Madrid. Nobody came to the first event, and the second one was just me and this guy trying to promote his services as an online marketer, who left after realizing I was not interested. However, some weeks later, we were a cool group of eight to ten entrepreneurs meeting regularly to talk about business, share our experiences or enjoy a good laugh.
If everything fails, you can go for digital alternatives. I was part of a blogging mastermind group once. We used to meet via Skype every Tuesday to discuss blogging, writing, and things like growing your audience or managing a newsletter. These meetings were always fun and interesting.
While it’s not the real thing, talking to friends or family online can help you feel better. Don’t hide in your digital corner though. If you are lonely, nothing replaces the warmth of another human soul sharing a beer or a tea with you at a terrace, or talking about the last movie you just watched. Get outside, take risks, talk to people you don’t know.
You will find out it’s not that terrible. People are more friendly than they seem.
In this post, I discuss the loneliness of the digital nomad lifestyle. Often cited as one of the main woes of digital nomads, especially those who travel alone, loneliness can become a problem even for the most introverted person.
Do you travel alone? Do you feel lonely sometimes? How do you cope with loneliness? Let us know in the comments below. And if you need to talk, just send me a message using the contact form here!