I’m all for prioritising ‘experientialism’ over materialism; that is, looking for contentment in experiences, rather than material things. Travelling might make you less materialistic, if it solidifies the notion that you can find more meaning and fulfilment in having new experiences than with buying more stuff. But even so, sneering at ‘materialistic people’ who are pursuing status falls flat when travelling itself becomes a kind of status-seeking game.
One-upping is, I think, the most obvious example of how travelling can turn into a status game. It can happen when you have someone telling a travel story, then someone else – instead of genuinely taking interest in the story – uses it as an opportunity to one-up the person. There can definitely be a competitive and boastful nature about recounting stories about extreme budgeting or how crazy/adventurous/beautiful/special/’authentic’/’spiritual’ a travel experience was.
This doesn’t mean that living on $10 a day in Nepal or visiting hill tribes in Myanmar isn’t worth sharing with others, but I’ve seen travellers turn the telling and swapping of stories into a status-boosting game. So if someone lived on $10 a day, then someone else might interject with how they lived on even less (but probably had less of a good time) or if someone visited a hill tribe, then someone else might reply with how they visited an even more remote hill tribe. And this kind of muddies what could otherwise be a genuine and engaging conversation.
A lot of this one-upping hinges on what many consider to be the ‘right way to travel’, so that other ways of travelling which don’t fit the mould get looked down on. I’ve heard travellers judge others for having a plan of where they’re going, for how much money they were spending, for staying in private rooms, for how much time they spent in a place, and so on. Travellers who espouse a distaste for the status-seeking behaviour of ‘materialistic people’ may be chasing ‘experiential status’ or might have a ‘spiritual ego’ that’s worth taking a look at.
When you’re more interested in counting countries – visiting as many countries as possible – rather than travelling based on your particular preferences and interests, then you may be playing a status game. I once met a long-term traveller from Paraguay in Slovenia who was quick to mention the crazy amount of countries he had travelled to. Other people set themselves goals such as having travelled to 30 countries by age 30, while on the travel subreddit many Redditors have how many countries they’ve visited next to their username.
One the one hand, I think there is value in experiencing many different cultures and places. On the other hand, part of the status game of travel involves viewing quantity as more important than quality. Travelling to 30 countries in a year is not the same as doing the same over a lifetime, but with more time dedicated to each country. And someone may have a more interesting, rich and valuable experience living in a few countries than just visiting them and ticking them off a bucket list.
This doesn’t make one choice superior to another, since everyone has their own way of doing things, and experiences will vary. Nonetheless, sometimes counting countries can be used to express some kind of travel status, of being ‘well-travelled’, worldly or cultured (even if you spend no longer than a few days in a city).
Promoting our social media selves
As I’ve written elsewhere, we often use social media as a way to present and promote ourselves as a brand. On Facebook and Instagram we create a highlights reel of our lives and, in turn, a perfected version of who we are. The very nature of social media encourages this. We feel eager to post travel photos, because gaining a positive reputation is naturally rewarding.
If people are motivated to share news on social media as a way to attain status, then I think it’s likely that travel photos, travel articles or travel quotes are sometimes shared for that reason as well; so that we give an impression to others of what we are like. There is no doubt a competitive edge to all of those irritating and heavily filtered travel photos on Instagram. The perfectly orchestrated and cliche pose, and over-saturation of colour and hashtags, are all there to try and impress others.
If any of these points sound judgemental, I’ve been guilty myself of one-upping, counting countries and constant travel updates on Facebook. But I guess it’s all part of a game that has lost its appeal.