How Traveling Makes You Less of a Jerkface

by Megan Lee

We all have tough jobs; jobs that make us focus less on the whole and more on the self. We try to be peacemakers. We try to keep our communities safe. We try to bring up children that accept others (and themselves) for all of their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, we have to make snap decisions in high stress moments. We do our best. 

And traveling can help us be even better.

The idea that everyone should travel to a country vastly different than their own  just once – won’t go away so long as individuals are regularly interacting with friends and strangers of different identity groups...

...which is to say, travel will always be relevant.

Girls dancing in traditional dress
Exposure to new cultures and ways of living and thinking breeds empathy.

All capable individuals should travel internationally with the intention of gaining clarity on the intrinsic value of diversity of thought, company, and work, as well as improved soft skills, such as empathy and sensitivity. It might be naive to ask that travel become a part of the national education curriculum, but if recent events in the last two years (or more?) have taught us anything, something needs to change. Maybe travel is it, maybe it isn't, but the idea should definitely be entertained.

We need to take responsibility for the change that needs to happen in the world. It’s now your duty, for the betterment of the world as a whole, to leave your home country.

WHAT WE MEAN BY TRAVEL

Interacting with the bellhop at a resort doesn’t count as sensitivity training (but we still encourage you to be nice to your bellhop).

We’re glad you can take a load off and relax on the beach for your annual vacay. You can hang with your sig-O, spend some time with the kids, maybe get to that book you’ve been meaning to. And while vacations serve a purpose and are important, this isn’t the type of traveling we’re getting at here.

We’re talking about meaningful travel. We’re talking about getting into the thick of it, working on projects alongside other nationals, intentionally conversing about deep topics regularly with them, thinking critically about your place in the world in relation to theirs, exploring cultural exchange. We are NOT just talking about tourism; trust us, there’s a difference.

It’s empowering to interact sincerely in foreign communities, not to mention great fodder for deep-rooted learning.

READY TO BOOK A FLIGHT?

If you’re ever planning on interacting with people who look/think/feel differently than you, you should proactively seek to visit a foreign country, ideally one rather different than your own, for a week to live in community with foreigners (volunteering, learning the language, participating in community-wide discussions are all fair game). Why? We’re glad you asked.

Close up of American flag
Reflect more objectively on American culture

1. You’ll be exposed to other ways of living.

Through the lens of observing how foreigners live their lives, defined by an entirely different and unique “normal,” travelers can begin to understand the differences that comprise a “normal” way of living in the United States.

Between our neighborhoods and our newsfeeds, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at curating environments that reflect our values, preferences, standards of living, opinions, etc. (::cough:: self-segregation ::cough::). We’ve designed our surroundings to mirror ourselves. How often do we go out of our way to walk to a different part of our own town with entirely different lifestyles and norms?

While traveling thousands of miles for this realization may seem extreme, it’s possible that tuning into radical differences will make us more sensitive to the more nuanced ones in our own communities. Individuals should excel at quickly recognizing, appreciating, and evaluating situations based on these subtle differences.

2. You’ll be able to reflect more objectively on American culture.

There’s something about physical distance from our people, culture, and land that provides a clarity we just can’t replicate when in the belly of the beast. Not only will traveling give you the chance reflect on what’s right, wrong, or neither about their own country, it will also provide you with an excellent framework for identifying the things we take for granted. Like seedless grapes, for instance!

Many individuals pride themselves strongly in their identity as an American; their patriotism runs deep in their bones. While admirable, it’s also perfectly healthy (and important) to recognize your country’s excellence as well as its shortcomings, especially when traveling abroad.

Hearing how your country affects others’ lives, as in, YES, our country’s political decisions and policies can have REAL and DEEP and MEANINGFUL and PAINFUL every day impacts on the lives of citizens in countries whose names’ you can’t even pronounce, is incredibly powerful. These conversations, and their ability to awaken you to new perspectives and realizations, are unmatched.

3. You’ll get the chance to see other societies in action.

The U.S. may not be perfect. We may be close or we may be far from it. But without seeing other communities doing their thang, living their lives, interacting with each other, making meals and dropping kids off at school, we are rarely afforded a base of reference for understanding the pros and cons of our life in the U.S.

Do they wear shoes? Do they wear school uniforms? Do they grow the majority of their own food or shop at conglomerates and supermarkets like us? Is it safe? Are there guns? Are the teachers or cops well-respected? Do citizens fear them?

And we’re just getting started. Having formalized time to observe, discuss, and think about foreign societies versus our own can lead to amazing personal insights and confidence in our cultural values.

Busy train platform
Watch other societies in action

4. You’ll develop more empathy for your neighbors.

Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, visiting a country that you fear a little bit, and figuring out how to succeed in a foreign language are NOT easy tasks. Travelers might even find themselves feeling a little vulnerable. They might have to rely on the kindness of strangers for help. They might need to tap into a pool of their resiliency they rarely visit. They might learn some new things about themselves, including their emotional responses to unusually stressful situations.

All of these experiences will increase an individual’s self awareness, allowing each to better relate, understand, and empathize with the individuals they interact with daily. Whether offering a comforting word, a pat on the back, a strong opinion, or an ill-placed physical reaction, being more mindful toward others will allow everyday citizens to excel at their jobs, and infuse them with compassion.

5. You’ll gain multicultural know-how.

Our country is diverse. From the dinner plate to the landscapes to skin tones. It’s freaking awesome. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to handling people of completely unique cultural identities and norms. Yes, purely American culture exists, and oftentimes pervades sub-identities (for instance, most of us believe equality is #thumbsupemoji), but that doesn’t account for the historical and cultural baggage we all carry with us daily.

I’ll never forget when I asked my French and Mexican friends if they’d tried “the Chinese pancake” from the street carts in Beijing. You mean the crepe?!” “Oh yeah, that tortilla!”

It’s a silly example, but it speaks to a much larger reality: the way we think, process, move through the world, and understand our place in it, is all heavily influenced by our cultural identities and norms.

We all must take seriously the responsibility to equip ourselves with the ability to juggle and handle cultural nuances in their everyday interactions. The lens of traveling abroad and connecting profoundly with foreigners, even if just as fellow people who also wish to smile, be healthy, do good work, and be surrounded by loved ones, is a lasting lesson in recognizing shared humanity.

Silhouette of a girl at sunset
Take a moment to reflect on your experiences and what you’ve learned from your travels; now apply that to your day to day life.

As George W. Bush said in the Dallas Memorial on July 12,

Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.

In fact, traveling once isn’t necessarily enough; individuals should probably keep traveling on a regular basis to allow focused time for reflection and opportunities to keep their skills sharp. Seeing lives starkly different than their own, being guided through intentional reflection and crafting action plans, working alongside individuals who look/talk/act different, while still cultivating meaningful relationships, these are just a few of the benefits afforded to those who travel abroad.

All of these lessons will translate to stronger relationships, greater respect between peacekeeper/ troublemaker, and a more compassionate approach to ensuring safety within our communities. We challenge citizens nationwide to consider traveling abroad for a week (or longer!) as a manifestation of their civic duty to their fellow citizens in the U.S.

Find a program & start traveling ASAP!