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:
- First, go walking. A lot. For hours. With no goal but to experience.
- Invest a few hours in the national historical museum.
- Find a local restaurant without using the concierge or guidebook.
- Be curious, not judgmental.
We need a bit of that too. Well, I do anyway.