The Basics of Meaningful Travel: Self-Reference Criteria

Open or closed? Which is "common sense?"

This is the first in an ongoing series on the basics of meaningful travel.

I spent a year in China teaching a graduate program in international marketing and trade. One of the classes I taught dealt with cross-cultural negotiations. In the textbook we used, I remember an interesting concept they highlighted called “self-reference criterion.” This means that we factor all our decisions based on our own cultural assumptions and biases. Everything we take in gets filtered through our own self-reference lenses.

The examples they gave included the notion of “common sense.” In the US, for example, “common sense” tells us to open the window of a person who is sick to let in fresh air. In Japan, “common sense” dictates you close the window to avoid drafts or even evil spirits that would make the person sicker. Some people view drinking milk as a mild stimulant, a natural Red Bull to get you through the afternoon doldrums. Others drink milk to put them to sleep at night. And likely, each person considers his or her use of the white liquid to fall into the category of, “Well everybody knows that…”

You start to realize that common sense isn’t so common.

When we travel, particularly overseas, we revert to our self-reference criteria especially when we feel threatened, insecure or we’re just so acculturated that we don’t know any better.

For example, a relative of mine took his first trip abroad when he was in his seventies. He traveled to Norway with his children and grandchildren on a family trip to see their ancestral home. Every morning, the grandfather insisted on an American breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, no matter how small the town or how atypical such a meal was for the locals. To him, a day just wasn’t right without a “real” breakfast and the more he was exposed to cuisine that seemed so different than that at home, the greater became his need for the familiar.

Even when we’re not pulled completely out of our comfort zones as he was, we still bring our sense of what is “normal” with us. That includes our definitions of attractiveness, quaintness, entertainment, what’s “good food” (or even what’s considered “edible”), personal hygiene and so many other categories that we don’t even realize.

When you start to recognize how much we apply self-reference criteria to our decisions and perspectives, you begin to have a greater appreciation as to how other people live. And you can begin to travel in a more open manner, learning to receive what seems different as just that, different, not necessarily wrong. As you cultivate this sense of openness, you see more, taste more, learn more. And pretty soon, what seemed so scary or even wrong now just seems intriguing.

Maybe even common sense…

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