Don’t Forget to Pack your Relativism: Keeping An Open Mind When Traveling Abroad

by Adriana Perez

What is relativism? It is a fancy way of saying to keep an open mind and be aware that how you see the world is not how everyone else sees the world. Priorities, morals, values, every possible social aspect of a culture are unique and open to interpretation depending on who is experiencing it.

Panoramic view over the city of Barcelona seen from Parque Guell

Panoramic view over the city of Barcelona seen from Parque Guell

Photo credit to Natalia Sleszynska

The opposite of relativism is ethnocentrism. While the word has a negative, racist connotation, it just means being unaware of the other cultures around you and not accepting the differences in how other people may see the world. Sometimes ethnocentrism is intentional, but more often than not is purely ignorance, which can be easily fixed with knowledge. 

Culture shock affects some people more than others, but no matter how tolerant or learned someone is, that initial contact with a new culture is always eye opening. It is one thing to read about a culture, how it is different, and to keep an open mind. It is another thing entirely to experience firsthand a conflict of cultural norms. Many assume that the greater the difference, the greater the culture shock. This is not always the case, though, and sometimes having only subtle differences can be just as disarming because they are so subtle that they no longer appear as cultural differences; rather they come off as potential personality traits or character flaws. 

In Barcelona, it is very common for a waiter to be taking your order and if he sees that you are slow in saying what you want, or hesitant and uncertain at the last minute, to walk away from you and begin to take care of another table. This is a subtle difference in cultures that happens frequently, and is very normal, but to an American traveler may come off as rude or impatient. These feelings are ethnocentric, but feel valid because the cultural difference is so subtle that it is not as obviously a cultural difference. It is important to understand and be ready for these subtle differences in culture, because someone may interpret an experience like this negatively, and let it negatively impact the rest of their day and ruin what should have been a nice evening. 

Another example of this is riding on public transportation. In many cultures it is considered rude to stare, but in Barcelona it is not taken quite as offensively. Because of this, many people commuting will be faced with looks or intense stares. Some can interpret this offensively and let it bother them the rest of the day, perhaps cause them to think there is something on their face or they had been doing something wrong, but that is not the case. It is a common occurrence, and should you be stared at, shake it off and do not take it personally. Perhaps join in on the cultural habit and stare at others as well, gauging how they respond to it. 

On top of a mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

On top of a mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

Photo credit to Hillary Federico

It is a lot harder to experience events like this and think, “I am in a new culture, it is different from mine, and they see the world through a different lens than I do” than if the difference was more obvious. But just like a photographer packs many lenses for his or her camera, it is just as important for a traveler to pack some cultural lenses, and prepare themselves for seeing the world in a different way than they are used to doing.

Life and the encounters experienced are all based off of how they are interpreted and perceived. Someone walking down the street that gets pushed can either interpret it as an act of hostility or as an accident. These interpretations are what create experiences, and experiences vary internally from person to person, even if the actions that occur are the same externally. 

Traveling is a unique experience, and it is over before you know it, so it is crucial to take advantage of every moment and make everyday a positive one. Feeling upset or irritated are normal human emotions, and it’s impossible to not feel down every once in awhile, but it is good to minimize feeling these negative sensations when they can be controlled. Including a relativistic view of the world and the cultures within it can help in reducing these negative sensations, using knowledge and an open mind as a shield from potential emotional threats. 

Any experience can be a positive one if you have the right mindset. Whether you are heading to the other end of the world, or to Barcelona, it is important to note the cultural differences and be prepared for what is to come. Everyone always warns you about the big cultural differences, but the subtle cultural differences can be just as important to take note of. Some you can read about and be prepared for, but no matter what there will always be those that catch you by surprise. Remember to pack a relativistic mindset, and every experience abroad should be a learning experience for you, opening your mind in ways that you never imagined were possible.