When does cultural immersion go too far?

2016

It’s easy to travel far away from home and experience very little of the local culture. That’s why ‘study abroad’ students are encouraged to get off Snapchat, soak up the local culture and move outside their in-groups and interact with peers who are different from them. It’s also why it makes sense for business travelers to go beyond the hotel lounge to meander through the local streets.

This comes pretty naturally for me. I describe myself on my Twitter bio as “insatiably curious” and my family shares my curiosity for all things cross-cultural. Whenever we travel together, we try to encounter the local culture up close. We prefer to stay in locally run hotels or better still, rent an apartment or house in a residential neighborhood.

We did this a couple weeks ago when we took a brief vacation together in Panama. We stayed in an apartment in Panama City and rented a little house in Bastimentos, a coastal village on the Caribbean side of the country. We asked locals to tell us their favorite places to eat and we used public transit. When the water stopped running for awhile in Panama City, we asked our neighbors what to do.

As much as I loved being in the cosmopolitan world of Panama City, I particularly enjoyed visiting Bastimentos, a sleepy island that is only accessible by boat taxi. Soon after we arrived in Bastimentos, we headed into Old Bank, the little town on the island that has a mini supermarket, a few cafes, a couple churches, a police station, and no cars. I felt completely alive.

This was a curious traveler’s dream! Most everyone we walked by appeared to be locals. And given that there are no cars or roads, it was pretty tough to walk around without seeing the culture up close. While trying not to stare, it was impossible not to get a glimpse right inside people’s homes where men were chasing chickens, women were bathing their children, and teenagers were heading off to school up the hill.

Whoa! And all of this was just a short flight away from the U.S.! I felt completely alive.

But then…I started to wonder if we were intruding. The pathways around the island went right alongside people’s homes. Our home in Michigan sits alongside 11 acres (45,000 m2) of public woods and I was trying to imagine how I would feel if I looked out my window and saw a Panamanian family strolling by our house with smart phones in hand.

Bastimentos has only recently been discovered by travelers like us. We had lunch one day at a local café. We were the only foreigners there. We started talking with the grandmother who runs it. She’s lived on this land her entire life and we asked her how she felt about people like us coming to her village. What’s she supposed to say, right?

But behind her hospitable welcome, we picked up on her growing concern that gringos are taking over the island. She was grateful for the new opportunities for business, but she said that most of the foreigners simply stay and eat at other foreigner’s businesses. And she wonders what her homeland will look like in the years ahead.

These same realities happen closer to home. A neighborhood near us is often lauded as a compelling picture of revitalization. It’s gone from having little more than a liquor store to being filled with hip boutiques, coffee shops, and foodie haunts along with lofts and condos. A woman who has lived there her entire life recently said, “I don’t feel comfortable walking around my own neighborhood anymore. I suddenly feel like an outsider and like I’m invading the newcomers’ community.”

There’s a lot of useful research that analyzes the complexities related to tourism and gentrification. We ought to resist easy answers and I’m certainly not suggesting we should all stick to ourselves and leave others well enough alone. But for curious travelers like me, our CQ DriveCQ Drive - the interest and motivation to engage with different cultures, must be combined with CQ Strategy - the ability to plan accordingly in light of the cultural context.

Vincent Mattox, an administrator from Kentucky State University attended our CQ Certification program last week. Vince introduced me to the idea of “delayed curiosity”. He suggests that while curiosity about other cultures is a good thing, it runs the risk of being offensive and may sometimes need to be restrained.

Vince agrees that political correctness is not the way to create a culturally intelligent environment, however, he sees the importance of tempering our expressions of curiosity when we aren’t sure how our questions and observations might impact others. Just think of the CQ Drivewildly-popular video where the Caucasian runner asks an Asian-American woman, “Where are you from?”

Curiosity is a huge asset for creating the necessary interest and motivation for working and relating with people from different cultural backgrounds; but it needs to be guided by the other three CQ capabilities: knowledge, strategy, and behavior.

I will continue to advocate getting to know a culture up close and moving beyond surface-level encounters. But I’m going to think further about when I need to delay my curiosity or even give up some of the cultural experiences I’d like to have because they may do more harm than good.

When has your curiosity gone too far? How do you encourage others to get outside their comfort zones without needlessly making other uncomfortable? My curious mind wants to know!

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.