Nigel Lim Gaurav Shriya
Jan 19, 2017

The paradox of the solo Asian traveller

Solo adventurers want to interact and connect with strangers, but may feel reluctant to do so. Can brands help?

The paradox of the solo Asian traveller

Traditionally, travellers have journeyed with friends, family or their significant others. However, as Asians have become more open to new experiences under the influence of television shows, cheap flights, social media and the experiences of others, there has been an upsurge in the number of Asians travelling solo, with 25 percent of Asian vacationers having done so for the first time in 2016.

In an increasingly joined up world, solo travellers too feel the need to connect with each other to exchange ideas, tips and recommendations, and enjoy companionship.

This however, runs counter-intuitive to the Asian concept of ‘face’, so prevalent across the region. Whether Chinese ‘lian’, Japanese ‘mentsu’, Korean ‘chemyon’ (face) or Malay ‘malu’ (shame), how does this concept affect travellers’ interactions with strangers, given that the desire to do so exists?

Face refers to the respectability that one can claim from others depending on the success of engaging them. On the flipside it is also important not to ‘lose’ face at any time during the interaction as this implies one’s inability to function in a socially appropriate manner.

This is especially resonant as it is much against the Asian conformist mindset, given that societies in Asia are largely collectivist—members of a group are expected to behave in a way that is conducive to the community rather than the individual. Your identity is closely linked to your relationship and interconnectedness with group members. This requires members of a group to live in harmony with one another without causing any disruptions or tensions; if you were to lose face, it could be perceived as a loss of face for your entire group due to the high level of interconnectedness. This, in turn might disrupt harmony.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

How, then does this concept of face (with a collectivistic emphasis) tie up with the interactions of the Asian traveller?

In a blank-slate interaction with a complete stranger, one might encounter a feeling of discomfort, as there is no way to gauge their silent assessment of you. There can be a real fear of rejection, which inevitably leads to a loss of face due to embarrassment from a failed attempt in a public setting.

After the initial approach, there might be awkwardness if you bring up a taboo topic or if interests do not align. If the conversation happens to skew towards discomfort or disinterest, it could further lead to a loss of face for the solo traveller.

So how can the paradox of wanting to interact with strangers, but feeling scared to approach or converse with them be solved?

To mitigate the fear of rejection, brands can provide a safe space where users have to opt-in to interact. For instance, Tripr, a travel-based app geared towards solo travellers, does a great job of signposting a willingness to engage: after specifying a common location, both parties have to ‘swipe right’ on each other’s profiles to ‘match’ before a conversation can happen. The ‘match up’ mechanism can prevent a loss of face, as travellers are no longer approaching an unwilling party.

Perhaps brands can also bridge the information asymmetry between travellers by tapping into the rich online space; after all, we live in a digital age where social media platforms are rife with information on one’s interests and habits. Couchsurfing does this by allowing users to access a wide array of information relating to the other—interests, a personalised bio and a range of other contextually relevant details. With this information, travellers are conversation-ready, minimising the fear of ‘losing’ face due to errant topics.

On the surface, apps like Tripr and Couchsurfing appear to enjoy great success; recent reports point to a rapid rise in popularity and user base, with the former even recording high monthly compounded rates of app downloads in 2015. However, success in a social context would be gauged through the impact these apps have in fostering connections for the solo Asian traveller.

There is growing evidence of people using these apps in a more functional way. Increasingly they are viewed as a transactional classifieds board, where users are soliciting for a free place to stay or touting (even providing or seeking sexual services) rather than fostering real connections.

Why? Could it be a case of inadequate functions? Oftentimes functions are tacked-on, rather than being a product of rich foundational understanding of consumers’ real needs. For these apps, while the mechanism to bridge travellers together exists, we need to question the cues of attraction that these solo travellers are looking for, along with the subsequent drivers of deeper connections in relation to comfortable conversations. Are they seeking a potential companion’s pictures, self-written biography, reviews, mutual friends or something else?

Perhaps these cues are more complex than they appear and can only be explored via a deeper understanding of these travellers. Innovation should therefore focus on how things ought to be from the consumer standpoint versus how things are from the business standpoint. Innovations that shine are led by exploration of the most resonant consumer tensions and in pursuit of the most compelling solutions.

In many ways, fear of the unknown seems to fuel the paradox of the solo Asian traveller. Inertia due to the possibility of rejection and uncertainty due to a lack of understanding towards others are both still very real pain points, but the advancements in digital apps and platforms, coupled with robust consumer understanding upfront, seem well poised to answer this dilemma.

Nigel Lim (left) is senior research executive and Gaurav Shriya is research executive at Flamingo Singapore


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