Thoughtful Travel and Cultural Intelligence

In 2009, I had the opportunity to backpack through Europe with my sister. We didn’t really know the logistics of doing so but fortunately our cousin, who has worked and backpacked there, advised us to buy Rick Steves’ guidebook. Ever since I’ve used Rick Steves’ guidebooks for Europe, I haven’t turned back (and I have used Lonely Planet, Fodor, Frommer’s, etc. you name it). When you read his books, it’s like you have an travel guide there with you, actually talking to you and telling you to “walk past the colorful walls” and “turn left after you go down the little steps on your right” (yes, his walking guides are that detailed). I highly recommend anyone going to Europe, backpacking or not, to buy one of his books.

But beyond Rick’s books, I’ve really grown to admire his travel philosophy. Although I’m paraphrasing, Rick’s introduction in his Best of Europe book basically tries to tell his reader/fellow traveler that we’re no longer in North America (the US, specifically, where his company is based), and we can’t bring with us our North American assumptions and expectations on our journey. It is with this mindset that we’ll have a great traveling experience.

More recently, Rick gave a TEDxRainier talk on The Value of Travel, which you can find below. Rick is a great story teller and although you might or might not already enjoy traveling, you should definitely watch this video. (If you don’t have 20 mins to spare, I’ve added my favorite quotes from the talk at the end of this post). Rick stressed the point that it’s not just travel, but thoughtful travel, that “is well worth the time and the money.”

One example of a “Eureka!” moment that Rick had on his travels to Iran (Rick says, “Why am I going to Iran?…and it occurred to me I’m going there because I think it’s good character to know people before you…bomb them.”) was when he was in a cab in a traffic jam and suddenly the cab driver, who mainly only spoke Farsi yelled out, “Death to traffic!”

Rick was surprised and asked the driver, “Death to traffic? Is it not ‘Death to Israelis’ or ‘Death to the Americas’?” And the driver responded, “No, right now, death to traffic.”

The driver goes on to explain that “Here in Iran, when anything is frustrating or out of our control, we say ‘death to that’.”

And Rick realized that this was equivalent to him saying “Damn those teenagers!” when he’s back in the states, although he doesn’t wish that the teenagers burn and rot in hell for eternity.

Now, you don’t have to be a researcher in cultural intelligence (CQ)—defined as the capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity—to realize that someone like Rick would score high on CQ. To break it down into its component parts though, CQ consists of:

Metacognitive CQ = the higher order cognitive functioning that is used to acquire and understand cultural knowledge. Individuals high on this component consciously monitor and reflect upon their own cultural assumptions and their interactions with culturally different others. They are able to suspend their judgment, be mindful, and adjust their own cultural knowledge in an unfamiliar cultural situation.

Cognitive CQ = refers to the knowledge the individuals possess of cultural universals in addition to differences in cultural norms, practices, and conventions, Those are who score high on cognitive CQ have knowledge of other cultures’ economic, legal, and social systems.

Motivational CQ = is “a source of drive” which leads individuals to direct their attention and energy towards effectively functioning in situations with culturally different others. Individuals who possess high motivational CQ are confident in their abilities to do well in contexts characterized by cultural diversity and are intrinsically motivated to do so.

Behavioural CQ = reflects the capability of individuals to exhibit appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviours, such as appropriate words, tones, gestures, and facial expressions depending on the cultural context. Individuals with high behavioural CQ should possess a wide range of culturally appropriate behaviours, understand the display rules of different cultures, and be proficient at interpreting the meanings of culturally different others’ behaviours.

Now the chicken or the egg question: Did Rick Steves score high on CQ because he traveled lots? Or did he gain successful travel experiences because he already scored high on CQ?

If CQ is like (cognitive) intelligence, then it might be the latter. But actually, researchers in the field of CQ think that it’s a trainable/changeable capability.

To score high on CQ, for me, it really all comes down to being mindful, knowledgeable, motivated, and flexible.

1)      Be mindful that there are cultural differences. Reflect on your experiences and rethink your assumptions.

2)      Gain knowledge about cultural differences, either by reading about it, asking culturally different others, or traveling to another place.

3)      Motivate or push yourself to actually acquire the knowledge, talk to culturally different others, ask questions, and change yourself.

4)      Be flexible in your own behaviour so that it’s appropriate in the current culture/situation. Not only will you “fit in” more and gain trust or respect from culturally different others, it might also open your eyes to why people do things a certain way.

As our world becomes more globalized and different cultures are increasingly coming in contact due to work, leisure, curiosity, change in policies (e.g., the ASEAN’s AEC), or other necessities (i.e., home displacement due to war), perhaps waiting for someone to develop their own CQ is not enough. I think that it should almost be a necessity to incorporate diversity and cultural training into educational and training programs for both children and adults.

The world would definitely be a better place if one day, everyone becomes someone who would say something like this:

“This man is very different from us, but he’s fundamentally the same. And if we can take home that understanding, that’s the best souvenir possible. And for the rest of our lives, when we look at the rest of the world, rather than fear its diversity we can better celebrate it.” Rick Steves

 My other favorite quotes from the talk:

“Travel opens us up to the wonders of the world…It helps you appreciate nature…It connects you with culture…It connects you with people…It’s people that makes your experience vital.”

“[The American] dream is beautiful but so is theirs.”

“When we travel, we gain a better appreciation of what is the baggage that people are carrying when they respond to us.”

“My friends in Europe always remind me a society always has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.”

“European example of pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to soft drugs.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain


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Filed under Culture, Diversity

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