Crossing cultures: Moving beyond "like"
The most common question people ask when someone returns from abroad is “how did you like it?” Just as with “how are you?” the asker isn’t looking for a deep answer, at least in the U.S. Instead, the responder is supposed to say, “it was great” and, after possibly sharing a quick detail, leave it at that.
This script may not open the doors to a person’s heart, but it provides a convenient topic for small talk and allows us to demonstrate interest while keeping a safe distance. It is also egalitarian: Because there is little room for the traveler to elaborate, there is little risk of bragging or straying into details with which the listener is unfamiliar, which could create a power distance. And, it feels efficient. After speaking for mere seconds, the asker can cross “welcome Alice back from Europe” off his list.
What “liking” leaves out
However, although this script may be culturally appropriate, it also has limitations. Specifically, because it filters a kaleidoscopic experience through the very narrow lens of how much we like it, it may distort our idea of what crossing borders and cultures is really like and skew our assessment about what we can get out of it.
Consider that implicit in the question “how did you like it?” is the assumption that liking it is the correct response. If you did not, you must have had a bad attitude, been insufficiently sophisticated, or wasted your money. These may be true to a point, but the bigger truth is that when we go to another country, we inevitably encounter things that are unfamiliar, that we don’t understand, and that we don’t like.
Experiencing difference and our response to it are actually part and parcel of international travel, and if we can grapple with the learning curve, we can experience rich insights and personal growth. The things we dislike may even become things we do like – or at least tolerate or understand. Yet this process can be messy, disorienting, and frustrating, and it often feels worse before it feels better. Sometimes, we may need more than one encounter before things start to click. Paradoxically, those who experience a place on a surface level may be the most likely to give it two thumbs up, while those who really confront and engage it may be more ambivalent and critical.
Unfortunately, by positioning liking a place as the highest and best response, we signal that crossing cultures is easy and that those who struggle are doing it wrong. This misguided message may lead individuals to incorrectly assess their own experiences, rating them as more of a success or failure than they truly were. It may also encourage them to mask how they are really doing, lest others judge them as inept, insensitive, or unworldly. Not only can this collapse the learning process at the moment when it should be expanding, but it may result in a downplaying of the need for coaching or training, or casting support as a last resort, only needed by those who can’t fend for themselves.
Beyond influencing individuals’ self-concepts, it may also have repercussions at the organizational level. For example, it may encourage companies to prioritize those who project a strong ego for business travel and global assignments over more self-aware and reflective coworkers. Not only does this unnecessarily weed out talent before it has a chance to blossom, but it may mean that companies unwittingly send people who turn out to be a bad fit for specific locations. It may also discourage otherwise promising employees from exploring opportunities. (For example, we have heard people express that they could never go to this or that place because they wouldn’t like it).
Finally, by focusing myopically on whether or not we liked our time in another country, we may overlook its full depth and texture, and may fail to observe our own agency in creating our experience. As a result, despite having extended vast resources in time, energy, and money to go abroad, we may fail to get a full return on our investment.
Moving beyond like
Using an expanded list of thought-provoking questions like the one below may help individuals more equitably and realistically interpret their own progress. It may also equip organizations to more effectively identify, measure, and incorporate their employees’ knowledge back into the company. These can be used formally as a way to guide a post-travel recap with a supervisor or team, or informally, as a personal journal exercise that employees can use to inform their own continued growth.
- What did you observe about the local culture/yourself?
- What surprised you about the local culture/yourself?
- What did you learn about the local culture/yourself?
- What stumbling blocks and challenges did you encounter?
- What strategies did you use to address these?
- Which ones worked and did not work? How did you know?
- What new information about the local culture should our organization integrate?
- What advice and tips do you have for our organization in this market, and for future travelers or assignees to this area?
- What do we still not know about this culture and market?
- In what ways did you grow, and how can you apply that to your current position and your career development?
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about whether we like something, and it’s probably not worth trying to get well-meaning friends and neighbors to listen to more than a quick soundbite of our trip.
However, when it is the predominant or only way that we consider a complex, multifaceted experience like international travel, there is a whole lot that we leave out. Individuals and organizations that use open-ended, probing questions will capture more value from their time abroad, and will be more successful in integrating it into their life and work.
Are you curious about incorporating this approach in your cross-cultural work? Let’s talk!