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Am I Too Awkward for Couchsurfing?

Posted By in Travel Musings | 49 comments

Am I Too Awkward for Couchsurfing?

We’ve almost always tossed around the idea of Couchsurfing. We created an account when we first started traveling, but for various reasons, we never made use of it until now. I’m sure most readers already know, but Couchsurfing is, among other things, a platform that connects people offering a free space in their home to sleep, with travelers looking for a place to crash for a night or two.

We’re planning to travel as much as possible while we’re based in Japan, and accommodation costs can add up quickly. Plus, we have a spare bedroom in our semi-permanent home in Takayama. I liked the idea of being able to give back by hosting in additional to surfing, and so overall the timing seemed right for our first Couchsurfing adventure.

Surfing

couchsurfing in Japan

For our first surfing experience, we arranged to stay in Kanazawa with a very nice Japanese man. We drove to Kanazawa in the morning, hoping to spend the afternoon sightseeing, stay the night, and then leave early the next day. Our host suggested meeting at a convenience store, explaining that his house was a little difficult to find without help. We saw him from across the parking lot,  introduced ourselves….and then there was silence. It was probably a combination of factors that led to this perfect storm of awkwardness:

  • Traveling over the past few years has caused Brent and I to be seriously lacking in a stable social network. Sad and embarrassing as it is, we mostly hang out with each other. When we do meet other people, they’re usually travelers. But the typical ice-breaking questions from these interactions, such as “where are you from?”, and “how long are you here for?” didn’t apply to this situation.
  • Secondly, my Japanese conversational skills consist of thought-provoking questions, like “is this a watch?” and “did you eat sushi yesterday?” English was our host’s second-language, which in this case, seemed to be making most of our attempts at conversation choppy, and full of confusion.

We tried presenting the bottle of sake that we had brought for him as a thank-you gift. It turned out that he didn’t drink, so this gesture did nothing to smooth over the weirdness between us.  When we arrived at his house, we were, in all honesty, eager to get going. Not just because of the horribly uncomfortable drive over, but also because it was early afternoon, and there was a lot that I wanted to see that day.

But then all of the neurotic guilt complexes that we used to experience during our Workaway and HelpX exchanges resurfaced. There’s a lot of emphasis on the Couchsurfing website about lofty concepts like connecting a global community of travelers and fostering a cultural exchange. Reading it had made me overly cautious about not treating his home like a free hostel. I began to wonder if it was rude to just dump our bags, and come back when we wanted to sleep. What did he want out of this hosting experience? Should we hang out with him, and pay attention to him?

We started over-thinking every nuance of behavior, and, as a result, things continued to feel more and more strained and uncomfortable.

Hosting

couchsurfing in Japan

The following weekend, we hosted our first surfers. When we picked the couple up at the train station, I immediately saw the same fear in their eyes that had haunted us during our surfing experience. It was their first time surfing too, and I could tell that they felt uncertain about how to show their gratitude, just like we had felt. I was also secretly relieved to find that we obviously weren’t the only surfers out there feeling semi-paranoid about coming across as free-loaders.

If you factor in our numerous Workaway and Helpx exchanges, Brent and I are more than experienced at being un-paying guests, but this was our first foray into the role of host. I realized right away that I didn’t expect anything at all from these surfers. I just felt good about giving our spare room to people who could actually use it. It would be a bonus if we all connected and wanted to hang out together; but if we didn’t hit it off, that was no big deal either. I didn’t expect every surfer to become a friend for life.

Over the weekend that the surfers stayed with us, I also realized that it just generally felt really good to share the local knowledge that we’ve accumulated during the past 2 months in Takayama. We could tell them which sake brewery gives unlimited free samples, where to get cheap sushi, and where to see the best of Takayama’s local markets.

I always seem to crack under the pressure of being a guest in a free exchange. I’m the kind of person who pays a friend back immediately if they loan me even a dollar. I don’t like being indebted to friends, much less to strangers. Once I owe someone, I feel an imbalance in the relationship that I don’t know how to handle. I’m much more comfortable being generous than I am at receiving acts of generosity. As a host, I could relax, be myself and enjoy getting to know our surfers.

 

So, it turns out that I might be too awkward and guilt-ridden to surf, but I’m not too awkward to host. Maybe I will eventually get over the neurosis that makes it difficult for me to accept free things without believing that there are social strings attached. Then we could try surfing again.

What do you think? Do most Couchsurfing hosts have certain expectations of their surfers?

49 Comments

  1. Kate - Canuckiwikate June 14, 2013

    I'd couchsurfed only a handful of times, generally with older people, before I started hosting. I had either a couch or spare bedroom, but really like the variety of company that it provided while I was working full time and unable to travel. I lived on 90 Mile Beach, and although I never mentioned the amazing view our house had in my profile, it was pretty awesome to see people's reactions – especially if they arrived after dark and woke up unknowingly to it in the morning!
    My recent post Beyond the Bridge – The Capilano Hatchery and Regional Park

    • waysofwanderers June 15, 2013

      I totally agree! We're still traveling around Japan, but we're not as mobile as some of our surfers, so it's really interesting to hear their travel stories. It definitely gives us new ideas about places to visit in the future.

  2. OCDemon June 14, 2013

    This is why I think friends-of-friends hosting situations are likely to work out a lot better, and why so many people just ask their Twitter buddies if anyone knows of a place to stay in wherever. That said, I've only ever had good experiences Couchsurfing, but it's always going to be hit or miss in regards to whether you get along amazingly with the host or not. But even if you're not going to be soul mates it usually ends up working out well enough, and I think just keeping your space from deteriorating into a hovel is gracious enough that they won't be annoyed (anyone hosting you with the understanding that you'll do the dishes is probably a weirdo). And I tend to prefer using it for expensive cities, or tiny places with no hostels, where I'd be bored and lonely anyway.
    My recent post In defense of speed freak backpackers

    • waysofwanderers June 15, 2013

      Yeah – I'm slowly realizing that hosts really aren't that disappointed if you don't end up becoming best friends with them. I've clicked with some of our surfers more than others, but it really doesn't bother me either way. You can only tell so much about a person from a profile, and no matter how it turns out in the end, I'm pretty sure everyone is just happy to be exposed to know a variety of people from different cultures.

  3. @todds_travels June 14, 2013

    I think especially as recently, Couchsurfing became a profit-making organisation, active members of the Couchsurfing community have been complaining about the massive rise of freeloaders using the site as solely free accommodation. It is a hard balance to maintain between wanting to go off and see the sights and respecting that your host may have plans in mind. I have yet to couchsurf and I think this is one of the reasons why.
    My recent post El Eje Cafetero: Salento

    • waysofwanderers June 15, 2013

      This is definitely what I was concerned about as a surfer. Although as a host, I don't really mind if people are more interested in my free room than in me personally. I get it – I know what it's like to travel on a budget and want to save money any way possible. As long as the surfers are polite, it's cool if they're looking for a place to crash rather than a bonding experience.

      • Tejana June 26, 2013

        "As long as the surfers are polite, it's cool if they're looking for a place to crash rather than a bonding experience."

        Right on! I'm so glad you put it that way! When I first joined CS, my impression of it was apparently a little different than that of many. I saw it as a network of travelers helping other travelers TO travel by way of giving them a free place to stay. Let's face it, there would be a huge chunk of people out there traveling today who otherwise would not be able to do so, or at least not near as extensively, were it not for the free accomodations they are able to score on CS. To me, just giving someone a place to crash in my city is itself a way of promoting cultural exchange, because even if that person and I never hang out (I mean, what if they are a loner or a bit shy – me), they are in my city and get to experience my culture (or the culture I currently happen to be in).

        A person shouldn't be thought of as less than deserving to travel simply because they are not an extrovert or are less than charismatic (moi). I actually like it when I see that a potential host has written on their profile that they might not be available to hang out. It really takes a lot of the pressure off. Let things happen naturally. Just because you and I might not have the types of personalities which mesh well and would make us "buds", doesn't mean that either one of us is less deserving of the opportunity to experience the world IMHO.

        Having said that, I also think that people who surf shouldn't expect to be entertained. They are already getting a free crash, so they shouldn't come with any more expectations other than maybe a few tips on places to go and not go and how to get around. People are busy with lives, work, and family and often just don't have the time nor energy to be a tour guide.

        I really get frustrated when I hear/see people talk about "freeloading". To me, it seems a bit uppity and disingenuous. If one really wants to help others see the world, then they should do so without expecting anything more than courtesy. Yeah, I am looking for a FREE place to stay and when you come to my place, I will give you, or anyone else a FREE place to stay in solidarity with the traveling spirit and others like me who would not be able to go to near as many places without the generousity of other fellow wanderlusts through the CS network.

        So please, people, stop using words like "freeloaders". As long as they aren't acting like dicks, wanting to stay an unreasonably long time or have asked for repeated crashes, what do you care if they want to hang out with you or not? I know I couldn't care less.

        • waysofwanderers June 28, 2013

          I definitely agree, Tejana. If a host and a surfer don't click on a personal level, then that doesn't make the surfer a freeloader. It's great if people are able to make friends through Couchsurfing, but as long as everyone is respectful, the system still works even if the surfer and the host don't have the time/desire to hang out.

  4. daleangloitalian June 14, 2013

    Like everything, it comes down to experience.

    When we first started Couchsurfing back in 2012 we were incredible unsure of ourselves and didn't know where to sit, where to stand, when we should be doing either or those, and so on and so forth. It's only after passing the 20+ surfs at locations in Japan, S.Korea, Taiwan and all the other countries on top that we found ourselves in a comfortable zone – and I don't want to say pattern as that'll sound too strategic – but with a methodology that works.

    We learnt how to be more open, how to be less shy and how to work out that equal balance of 'our time' and 'together time'.
    My recent post From Italy With Love

    • waysofwanderers June 15, 2013

      This is great advice! Maybe it just takes a few experiences to become comfortable with the whole arrangement. Even after hosting just a few times, I think our next surf experience will be totally different because we have the perspective of what it's like to host.

  5. Marian @ CS June 15, 2013

    Jessica, I love how honest this post is! We definitely emphasis an anti-freeloader mentality as we never want hosts to be taken advantage of. But you'd really be surprised how many surfers feel the way that you do. It DOES feel weird sometimes to accept someone's generosity with no real expectation of anything in return. I wouldn't worry, you did everything right as a guest.

    I surfed for years before hosting and when I finally did host I realized the same thing as you. I didn't expect anything from my surfers and after being a guest for so long, I realized how appreciate people were to just be left alone sometimes. At Couchsurfing we absolutely emphasis cultural exchange and loft goals like world peace! But that doesn't mean it's not okay to leave your host for a bit and take a nap. And while the majority of Couchsurfing experiences are life-changing, with 6 million people a few might be a little awkward 😉

    I'm so glad you tried it though and I hope, however you use Couchsurfing in the future, you have a fantastic time.

    • waysofwanderers June 15, 2013

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Marian. I'm glad to hear that other surfers sometimes feel the way we did – I kind of had the impression that everyone else was relaxed about the whole thing, and we were the only ones freaking out.

      We're loving the hosting experience, so I'm sure we'll work up the courage to surf again some day :).

  6. cheap burberry June 15, 2013

    An fascinating discussion is value comment. I think that it is best to write extra on this matter, it may not be a taboo subject but typically people are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  7. Such an interesting piece about the mentalities that go on during a couchsurfing experience! I’ve never yet been a surfer but want to try it out while in South America: however I know I’d do the same as you and over think what I was expected to provide my host in return. Hopefully I have less awkward situations!

    • waysofwanderers June 16, 2013

      It's definitely worth trying, Flora! From what the other commenters are saying, it sounds like you just have to be prepared for your first few surfing experiences to feel a little strange until you get the hang of it. I suppose it depends a lot of the personality of the host too – I'm sure some people help you to feel more relaxed about the whole thing than others.

    • Tejana June 26, 2013

      One thing you might think about is something that I do when I ask for a couch – I let the potential host know up front that I do not need to be entertained or guided around. If they want to do that, I MORE than welcome it, but I'm an independent traveler and quite able to find my way about.

      I figure this also gives you more of a chance of being accepted by a host because what if they simply aren't in a place or mood to be Ms. United Nations because of work pressures or personal stuff? They might turn you down. But if they know that it's okay to just offer you a safe place to crash, they might figure why not?

      • waysofwanderers June 28, 2013

        I think this could also be a good way to clarify expectations beforehand because the host's response will give you a sense of whether he/she intends to show you around and hang out with you.

  8. @ACruisingCouple June 15, 2013

    This is too funny! I definitely know what you mean about the 'this is awkward I want to leave but that would be too rude!' thinking. Dan and I have both couchsurfed around 20 times, and we LOVE it. I think it just takes some getting used to. I remember the first time I did it alone in Europe, I met some Italians at the bus stop and they started to lead me through back alleys of Genova. I was thinking: this is it! I'm going to die! But then they turned out awesome, took me to a hidden party in an abandoned castle where I was the only foreigner, and we still keep in touch four years later! A lot of it depends on the host too. Definitely give it another try, and I would say don't worry too much about doing your own thing while you are staying with them. You will be able to tell if they want to hang out or not 🙂 Great post, I really enjoyed it!!
    My recent post Photo Friday | The Power of a Smile | Nanliao,Taiwan

    • waysofwanderers June 16, 2013

      That's sounds like an awesome time! I think that's how Couchsurfing is supposed to be at it's best – getting a chance to experience cool local events/culture that you wouldn't be able to be part of if you had just stayed in a hotel.

  9. Digital Nomads June 15, 2013

    That is a great post Jess, it's always nice to reveal the emotional dimension of CouchSurfing community.

    We're having a blessing experience from being hosted with CouchSurfing members, very rich and inspiring and so far it went all good.

    One of our experienced hosts told us that he understands that some people are just looking for a place to crash and he don't mind -like you- and if his guests wanted to share experience he will also be happy.

    It all depends on people and what each want from the experience, both sides give something for the other.

    Now we know where we will stay when we go to Japan :p
    My recent post Baños Travel Guide: the City of a Thousand Hostels

    • waysofwanderers June 16, 2013

      Definitely – and I suppose it might not even be unreasonable to talk to a host about what he/she wants to get out of the experience, if the expectations seem unclear.

  10. Angela June 16, 2013

    Interesting perspective, Jess. I see what you mean. I feel that hosting is a way of paying it forward, alleviating any guilt you may feel. The whole gift thing is definitely awkward. I usually turn up with chocolate and/or booze. Who doesn't like chocolate and booze??

    • waysofwanderers June 16, 2013

      Well that's why I thought sake was a good gift, but that definitely didn't work out! Maybe chocolate AND booze is the key – any host is bound to like at least one of the two :).

  11. Kevin June 18, 2013

    I felt the same way when I first started couchsurfing especially as a host. I over compensated to try to make every guest feel at home and to have a good time while at my place. Over time, I've learned to just go with the flow, feel out what the guest wants to do and go from there. Some already have a plan to explore the city, some have absolutely no plan and want to hang out if I have the time and some are in between where they are on their own while I work and then we can hang out once I get home.

    Also, being of Japanese descent, that awkward silence is common when first meeting somebody new. Most are a little self conscious of their command of the English language and although they may understand you and can communicate in broken English, they don't want to "embarrass" themselves.

    • waysofwanderers June 18, 2013

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kevin. I've definitely found that most Japanese people are better at English than they think, but they're very shy about actually using it – I'm sure that contributed to the awkwardness between us.

  12. TammyOnTheMove June 21, 2013

    I have never tried couch surfing, but I think I'd feel quite uncomfortable too. I feel sorry for you, the guy certainly didn't make it easy for you. He could have at least pretended to like Saki and just appreciate your gesture.
    My recent post 3 quirky things to do in Berlin

    • waysofwanderers June 22, 2013

      Yeah – we were definitely in part to blame for the awkwardness, but he also didn't go out of his way to feel comfortable. He didn't really show us around his place, or encourage us to make ourselves at home – I was really just looking for some reassurance that we weren't intruding.

  13. Roisin July 20, 2013

    I haven't tried couch surfed yet .Although I had a similar experience when I was house sitting – it was just awkward silence when I first met the home owner.
    My recent post My New Plans: Leaving Australia

    • waysofwanderers July 21, 2013

      I guess it can be kind of weird meeting a stranger with whom your life is about to become intimately connected. I felt the same way when we were doing work exchanges; it was like "nice to meet you – we're going to be living with you for the next 2 weeks". It's such an unusual social situation. Although at least with housesitting, the home owner doesn't hang around for too long!

  14. @naganoadventure August 15, 2013

    I know exactly how you feel! We have only couchsurfed once… we stayed with a Japanese man in Paris and kind of lucked out. We invited him out with us but he mostly was working or preferred to relax at home. We did spend a bit of time with him though and it was a really nice experience overall. But I am pretty awkward around people in general… luckily my husband is way better at that stuff than me.

    • waysofwanderers August 16, 2013

      That sounds like the perfect situation: Some bonding time, but also plenty of time alone without feeling obligated to your host.

  15. @naganoadventure August 15, 2013

    I know exactly how you feel! We have only couchsurfed once… we stayed with a Japanese man in Paris and kind of lucked out. We invited him out with us but he mostly was working or preferred to relax at home. We did spend a bit of time with him though and it was a really nice experience overall. But I am pretty awkward around people in general… luckily my husband is way better at that stuff than me.
    We just moved to Ina, Nagano, and have a large 3 bedroom apartment. So if yall ever want to stay with us, shoot me a message! We promise not to make it awkward 😉

  16. stefan August 15, 2013

    It might be partially unpracticed communication skills and partially shame.
    Related to the second part I remember reading "Daring Greatly" – Brené Brown (http://www.brenebrown.com/) … excellent book that cleared some stuff up.

    I am new to couchsurfing. I'm going to host 2 persons next week for one night. Hope I can find out what they are looking from the experience before it gets awkward. After that I'm planning to try some surfing myself. I'm excited as a little kid before Christmas with this couchy thingy …

  17. Petra August 16, 2013

    That's why we have only hosted so far. That and also, that I really love my Independence when on Holiday. So acutally I am too selfish to surf, because I just want to do my Thing and not have to take the wishes of my host in account, But then I am back to reason number one, because I just like to be a host and I believe I am a goo one. I don't expect anything from Surfers, if they just want to use the bed and shower – fine with me. If we click and spend a lovely time hanging out together – fine too.
    We had wonderful Surfers so far and I sometimes regret that I am not the Surfing Person, since I am sure we miss nice experiences.

    • waysofwanderers August 16, 2013

      You make a good point, Petra. That was also probably part of our problem with our host – we had a big itinerary planned, and I wasn't really interesting in hanging around socializing and missing out on sightseeing. Maybe certain kinds of trips are better situated to Couchsurfing than others.

  18. César August 16, 2013

    Hello! Interesting views, I have recently started on Couchsurfing. I have already had several people in my house, really the idea is a cultural exchange with another person, you can help him to visit your city, tell the best places or spending time with that person. You are not obligated to, only you're offering a place to sleep, sometimes for work or for other situations, I do not have time to be with them. They sometimes bring a gift or typical of the country, sometimes, they cook food from their country … Neither is bound to nothing, we must not accept people who think couchsurfing is a free hotel, there must be mutual respect. I think it is great when you can welcome someone and someday that person will do the same to you at home 🙂

    • waysofwanderers August 17, 2013

      Thanks for your comment! I think this is why I've been more comfortable hosting so far, because I'm the one giving instead of the one feeling indebted. As you say, some hosts are concerned about Couchsurfers treating their home like a free hotel; this is exactly why surfing makes me nervous because I don't want to come across this way.

      • César August 17, 2013

        I think the good attitude of the surf, is the person, who without you ask for anything, that person is going to help. That person clean the dishes, cooking, and is expected to couch all day with him. If one day I'm surfing, cleanse the dishes, cook something and ask my couch if I want to accompany my visit to the city. I also think it will be easier for me because I'm going to try to go to the homes of the people who have been to my house, then the two have met before and we know what we can give and receive 🙂

        • waysofwanderers August 18, 2013

          Yeah, it's definitely nice if you can host someone, and later they can host you in another country – I think that's the ideal arrangement. I like getting to know my hosts, and helping out however I can, but where is the line? I guess it depends on your travel plans, but cleaning, cooking dinner, and hanging out with your host could become pretty time-consuming if you have a lot that you want to see/do in that city.

  19. Vanessa August 19, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your experience about couchsurfing! I'm just about to try it for the first time next month… hope it's not too awkward! In daily life I definitely feel the cultural/social tension of hoping other people don't feel awkward or hoping that I'm not taking advantage of them, so I can only imagine that living for free in someone's home could be easily seen like that. Hope it's not! 😀
    My recent post ESL Games and Activities That My Students Love

  20. waysofwanderers August 20, 2013

    I'm sure you guys will be fine as long as you don't overthink the whole thing as much as we did! We're just the kind of people who really need absolutely everyone to like us – it's a good thing most of the time, but I think with Couchsurfing it's easier if you accept that you're really going to bond with some people, and others will be just ok.

  21. Vicky January 31, 2014

    I’m really glad I came across this post! I plan to surf while on holiday in Ireland so to put that generous karma in the universe I have been hosting – a lot! My first surfer leaves town in the morning after being in town for a month. We had our first CS encounter just after Christmas and we hit it of very well! I’m sad to see her go as I would certainly consider her a friend. I’ve had others since that have simply stayed at my house and moved on.

    I’ve found the best practice is to be upfront about what I can offer- if it is just a place to sleep because I’m busy working and need them in by 9pm or if I am available to show them around and hangout- I tell them before I accept. If they are looking for similar things no one is disappointed.

    I love the idea of managing expectations and if we are on the same page with that then whether we become buddies or I simply help you along the way it is a win-win.

    I’m really hoping my surfing goes as well as my hosting has!

    Thanks for this perspective!

    • waysofwanderers January 31, 2014

      Good point, Vicky! There's much less risk of awkwardness if everyone is upfront about both what they expect, as well as what they can offer. Communication is definitely key!

  22. Charlie February 15, 2014

    It's nice to hear that your story ended with you liking to host, even if you found surfing a bit awkward. I had a few awkward experiences surfing as well, definitely occuring more when you stay with people who only have English as a second language (I've found). But, I've met some very awesome people whilst surfing and they've really helped me out, showing me around the local area and recommending places. I think you have to give it a few gos and try to find hosts who have similar interests to you – for instance, I always try to stay with vegetarian travellers, and I find it makes chatting to them so much easier. I hope you have more positive couchsurfing experiences!
    My recent post Picture This: Love & Apples in a Hertfordshire Village

  23. Phil April 5, 2014

    Great Post,
    Couch-surfing is one of the best ways that I have found to meet like minded people. Although my tiny winter flat in Asia is to small to host anyone, I will be eager to give it a try when I get back home to Europe. Don't overlook the biggest advantage to couch-surfing and that is the small events and get together's. I have met so many great Friends that will remain in my heart forever, now that I have forced myself to break out of my cocoon and started going to the meet-ups.
    My recent post Interviewing Fellow Travelers and Travel Bloggers

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