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International Travel: How to Not Judge a Person by Their Country (or Be Judged by Yours)

September 25, 2018

International Travel: How to Not Judge a Person by Their Country (or Be Judged by Yours)

Wearing a T-shirt with the words “You Can’t Get This in the States” on the front of it, Canadian stage actor Christopher Darroch stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in North Carolina. “The fellow in line in front of me asked in a very American accent, ‘Y’all can't get whatin the States?’”

Darroch explained the shirt was a joke. He is Canadian. “Oh, Canada,” the American replied. “Y’all got snow up there.” 

Yep. Canadians have snow. Americans are big and loud. Chinese are fast learners. Germans are efficient. Finnish are frugal. Italians are passionate. Japanese are techy. New Zealanders are cool and calm. Bangladeshis are family-oriented. And Belgians love beer. 

Take those kinds of generalizations with a grain of salt. Or better, yet, ignore them altogether. Generalizations are often stereotypes that may be based in truth, but don’t accurately reflect the complex dimensions of reality. 

Furthermore, most people want to be judged as individuals – not for the collective reputation (fair or not) of their fellow citizens. We’ll get along better traveling the world if we take the time to understand people we meet as the individuals they are. 

Most people want to be judged as individuals – not for the collective reputation (fair or not) of their fellow citizens.– Click to tweet

When national and individual identities collide

Perhaps no one leaves home with more reputational baggage than Americans. But while many Americans may feel their nation is under a worldwide microscope, they shouldn’t assume that the world will judge them all the same.

Eben Diskin, who writes for the travel and lifestyle site Matador Network, says, “There is a certain expectation that our divisiveness at home will follow us abroad.” But it often doesn’t actually play out that way.In a blog post about traveling after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Diskin writes that individual travelers from all countries have a lot to learn from each other. And sometimes controversies at home can make people from other countries more interested and more empathetic toward you. 

While issues in your home country may not stop you from traveling, the ‘Where are you from?’ question can lead to a moment’s hesitation. But worry not. “I wish I had known all along what I know now: No one will judge you on your passport unless you give them a reason,” Diskin says. “Other countries have their own problems, which loom much larger and closer.”

Mind-changing, not changing minds

Whether you travel for pleasure or business, respecting the local people is key, and the best way to do that is to learn a little about them first. Do enough research to understand generally about the culture, social habits, ways to avoid faux pas. Make sure you can catch your train, find a hotel, get a meal, all while being polite. And then embark on your journey with an open mind. 

Respecting the local people is key, and the best way to do that is to learn about them.”– Click to tweet

Being open-minded helps you meet new people and find new and unique experiences, but it also delivers long-term benefits. Psychologist, researcher, and TED Talk speaker Adam Galinskysays travel can change the way we think – the way our minds work. Being open-minded allows us to take in and digest new information without being defensive, and being flexible allows us to break out of old ways of thinking. 

Galinsky says a recent study of MBA students showed that greater levels of learning about other cultures had two benefits: it helped them constructively face the tension of opposing ideas and led to more job offers.

But it’s not just about being abroad. Researchers say you have to engage. The key to realizing the benefits of international travel is to immerse yourself into the multicultural experience. Let local people get to know you as an individual and get to know them. 

“Travel helps us learn to switch perspectives more easily.”– Click to tweet

Cutting through preconceived notions – and geopolitics

In addition to being open and having a positive attitude, experienced travelers also recommend packing a sense of humor, patience, and curiosity. Your mindset can maximize the benefits. 

And if you’re traveling for business, take time to get out of the office, too. Be creative with scheduling so you can include time to explore and socialize with colleagues. Get away from the constraints of business so you can let your guard down and let people get to know you as an individual. 

It’s not just about being abroad. The key to the benefits of international travel is to immerse yourself into a multicultural experience.”– Click to tweet

Amanda Williams, who writes A Dangerous Business Travel Blog, says making time to explore with locals has left her with the best memories from trips. “Like the time I was invited into a random woman’s home in rural Bulgaria to eat fresh cheese and watermelon despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language. Meeting locals almost always enhances the travel experience.”

Williams says she has found herself entertaining preconceived notions about destinations, but taking time to get to know people dispels them quickly. 

During a visit to Russia, for example, Williams expected unfriendly people and Soviet-era apartment blocks. “Would I be questioned heavily at immigration? Would people be rude to me? Would I feel unsafe? Well, the short answer is no. I had no trouble at immigration, encountered no anti-American sentiments, and felt very safe the entire time in Russia.”

So heed the wise advice of kindergarten teachers everywhere: Don’t judge a traveler by her country, and don’t assume you’ll be judged by yours. Open your mind, and become a citizen of the world.

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