Americans, Travel and Rushing to Judgment

I travel internationally; less than some, more than many. These last three weeks I’ve been in three countries (the third visit for one, 10th and 20-something-th for the others).

Travel is good for everyone, I think, but especially for Americans. All right, OK—for me.

(On Monday I’ll have a tongue-in-cheek self-diagnostic test: find out just how American you really are!).

I know a few who love foreign travel. They assume that people are fundamentally the same, and delight in finding the superficial differences, the spices that make the human stew an infinitely varied source of nourishment.

I admire the hell out of them. Because unlike them, my first reptilian-brain instinct is to go to fear-based judgment. An all-too American response, I think. All right, OK—maybe it’s just me.

Here’s what I’m re-discovering on this trip:

• Judgment feeds on fear.
• Fear feasts on ignorance.
• Ignorance fades when one can hear others—in their terms.
• Our ability to influence depends on our willingness to be influenced.
• Our similarities far outweigh our differences.
• Our behavior in groups mirrors our behavior as individuals.

My personal road to growth has been exposure to others. For me as an American, the benefit of international travel is enormous. Yet only something like 20% of us have a passport. Absurdly few of us speak another language—usually poorly at that.

But what’s the link between individuals and groups? Does the road to corporate trustworthiness go through the individual?

Some see trust issues mainly as group issues. I’m more inclined to see groups as aggregations of individuals. Let’s assume and explore—at the risk of touching on politics—the latter.

Marriage-researcher John Gottman says marriages work best when we are vulnerable to and influenceable by our mates. They’re worst when we judge, shut down, and insist on changing the other.

Might nations be the same? Mark Twain says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

If Gottman’s observation extends to group behavior, then exposure to the world influences us. And, thereby, gives us influence.

Consider foreign student exchange programs, and how deeply they promote understanding. We could afford to spend $10,000 per head to send 500,000 Americans abroad to be influenced, and the same amount to bring 500,000 influenceable foreigners here—all for the cost of about two months’ spending on the Iraq war. With, arguably, better results. In any case, we could use a bit more of that perspective.

One of our presidential candidates said, “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” It is no accident that this candidate “has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian.” (Hint: it’s not Giuliani). We could use a bit of that kind of perspective too.

Peter Jennings—famously traveled—said, “Whenever I see a coin, I’ve learned to turn it over to see the other side.” We need a bit more of that view, I think.

My suggestions for travel in a new country or city:

  1. First, go walking. A lot. For hours. With no goal but to experience.
  2. Invest a few hours in the national historical museum.
  3. Find a local restaurant without using the concierge or guidebook.
  4. Be curious, not judgmental.

We need a bit of that too. Well, I do anyway.


12 replies
  1. laowaitattler
    laowaitattler says:

    Your four suggestions for traveling in a different country are the way most people outside America travel.

    They just go.

    Perhaps with the exception of the Chinese and Japanese (who seem to revel in the experience of playing follow the leader in group tours)  most people outside the US discover the world on their own doing what you suggest without thinking about it.

    Are Americans really as hopeless when traveling as you make it sound?

    The line about finding a local restaurant without using a concierge or a guide book cracked me up.

    Really, how hard can it be to find a restaurant? 

    And real travelers never use a concierge…the people who do are rightly called "TOURISTS". There is a big difference between the a traveler and tourist.


  2. peggy
    peggy says:

    Most Americans are unable to travel because they have practically no vacation time.  Also, they have been brainwashed to believe that there is not much of value outside of the number one USA.  Add to that the inccredible lack of historical perspective, and is it any wonder that only 20 percent

    have passports? And most of them probably have them for business travel.



  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    A warm welcome to the Laowai Tattler!  I urge anyone to go read his blog.  The link didn’t work, so just try and then click on the LaoWai link.

    He is a Canadian over in small-town China for many years now, and has just a great voice.   If you like quirky travelogues, you’ll love him.

    So, LT, you ask (with some attitude, I might add), whether all Americans are really this dense?  Well, I’ll have to let them speak for themselves, but I certainly started that way.  And still find vestiges of it in me. 

    And I’m not sure I’m all that crazy.  When I set out to do my walking in Shenzhen at night, I felt distinctly not at ease. 

    To add to Peggy’s comments, I think also most Americans are thrown off by the lack of English–we have no training in being where people speak other languages. 

    Anyway, everyone, pick up some good lessons about how to travel and do it right by reading some of the blog from the "laowai" (which means sort of honorable older dipshit foreign moron, if I get it right from him).  It’s a hoot.

  4. laowaitattler
    laowaitattler says:

    Thank you for your kind words about my little blog. I am sorry the link that I included seems to have had a minor spelling mistake that I missed when submitting the comment. The link above should take you to my main site or try http//

    I suffer from insominia and often go for long walks well past midnight in the Chinese city where I live, and a few times in Shenzhen. I’ve never felt not at ease. It must be "a  honorable older dipshit foreign moron" thing.


  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Travel: many folks have the experience but miss the meaning as they cannot see past their own eyes, as they travel with eyes wide shut, not wide open…not just abroad, but in their own towns and neighborhoods. This type of blindness is also a function of fear…shutting off and shutting down before setting their foot out the door…so their bodies and their egos travel…certainly not their hearts and souls, their higher consciousness…





  6. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    A good list Charlie.  I generally make it a point just to wander around, on foot, whenever I’m somehwere new.  Even if you can’t understand the language it’s remarkable how much of the feel you pick up.

  7. Chui
    Chui says:


    From what I hear, there are a lot of Americans and Australians who have lost faith in trusting people after 9/11 and 10/12 (Bali bombings). It’s a complex topic and I’d appreciate it if you could pen your thoughts how this trust in general humanity could be restored.


  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I think you’re right about Americans’ mistrust of the world out there post 9/11 (ditto Australians vis a vis Bali).  Some of that, unfortunately, is due to national leadership playing heavily on themes of defense and homeland security, playing to the historic tendency of both countries’ populations to revert inward, even xenophobically, in times of international challenge.  (We’re not unique in that: China has had that tendency historically too).

    It is indeed a complex topic, but a good one. I can hardly do it justice here, but I’ll keep that thought in mind.

    On the one hand, there’s the John Lennon thesis–all you need is love, etc., the key to saving humanity is one human at a time, be the change you want in the world, etc.   An easy point of view to caricature, but I think it has a lot of truth to it.  The Great Man theory of history has a lot of truth to it, in my humble view.

    Then there’s the bigger forces view.  I don’t have any neat one-liners there.  I will have to think about how to most clearly address it, and welcome your thoughts as well.

  9. Chui
    Chui says:

    To be honest, I don’t think tourism is going to help with clash of cultures.  In fact, hard drinking and partying Australians in Bali tend to bring out a lot of resentment among the muslims in Indonesia.

    It is far better to tell those fearful that in a far away land, there are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who fear us, and some who even hate us, because of what their political leaders and religious leaders tell them about us. Some of them would even venture to our lands to kill us, on the basis of the lies spread by their leaders.

    And there are amongst us, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who fear them, because of the fear mongering that our leaders put in our heads. Some of us even hate them, and want to go over their countries to kill them.  Their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

    Such kind of violence and harmful thoughts are self perpetuating. With each innocent killed, there will be even more who truely believe that each is a threat to one another, who believe that each are not human, eat their young, kill their parents and harm their women. 

    When the Berlin walls came down, the ordinary Russians were surprised to learn that Americans are very likeable and quite unlike the monsters their leaders warned them about. This is only natural, for we are all humans with the same desires and fears.

    Back during the cold war, no one believed that it will ever end. But the walls did come down. So too, however impossible it seems now, one day Muslims and Christians will no longer fear one another.

    We have to learn to trust our heads that all humans tend to think and fear in the same way. In the end, all of us want each other to live and let live, to continue with our own way of life, to see our children grow up, to love, and to be loved. 


  10. mentalmosaic
    mentalmosaic says:

    Excellent post! And I love the Twain quote.

    I’m an American who currently dwells in Italy and works from home. I truly enjoy learning Italian, the numerous and often amusing cultural differences, and of course, the food (and I blog about it all, too!)

    That said, one reason so few Americans learn other languages is through lack of exposure.  America is a HUGE country, and you can drive for a week straight without having to go through customs or arrive in an area where they don’t speak English. 

    Nor are people in Idaho, for instance, worried that an army from Oregon might invade.  And people in North Dakota don’t speak a different dialect than people from South Dakota. 

    Even where I am, here in Naples, I am learning both Italian as well as the local Neapolitan dialect.  It’s fascinating.

    Once again, thanks for the thought-provoking post.  Check out my blog sometime if you want to read about my latest Italian culture shock!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *