We have always traveled. Our ancestors, hunters and gatherers as well as nomads/pastoralists, traveled. Hunters and gatherers traveled in search of wild foods and game. Nomads or pastoralists traveled – or maybe migrated is a better word – in search of food for animals. They traveled relatively short distances, and within geographically restricted areas, and theirs were often travels of a seasonal nature, visiting the same locations throughout the seasons. The low population densities at that time means that they would seldom have encountered other peoples and cultures. There are still people who travel and migrate in the old ways, but these are subsistence practices that today mostly are forgotten.
The situation today is a very different one, certainly for those among us that primarily live in countries and regions in the north and west (that is, the so-called "Western" world or hemisphere), together with some developed and western-oriented countries elsewhere. We continue to travel but in a different way and for different purposes. Some among us travel more than others, and some among us travel to more exotic destinations than others. We travel increasingly, and for two main reasons: tourism and business. The tourism concept "destination" has since long been a household term. There is a further similarity between us: we travel to explore the unknown and to learn. Finally, an important aspect of today's global traveling is that it appeals more to the younger generations.
So, we travel to explore the unknown and to learn, it is our credo, our rationale for traveling. This is, at least, what we oftentimes tell ourselves and those around us. However, the truth is we have hardly even begun to scratch the surface of those exotic cultures.
For people who travel for purposes of business, not knowing the culture might, in a worst-case scenario, mean the difference between a good deal and a bad deal (or no deal at all). For those that travel for pleasure, not knowing the culture as a rule means opportunities forgone, chances of experiencing the local scene missed – that is, learning.
In a TEDx talk in Bucharest, Romania in 2015 I explored these issues from the vantage point of social anthropology (Vimeo n.d.). As an anthropologist I am trained in understanding other cultures, in pinpointing how they "tick", so to speak. This is what I have done since many years working in development cooperation and traveling the world. I am, you might say, a professional traveler, but not a tourist. For me, being able to understand a culture is tantamount to delivering sound advice on, for example, the implementation of a development project. The essence of achieving this is as easy said as it is difficult to do: it involves leaving behind – in a sense forgetting – your own culture, in order to experience the foreign culture on its own terms, and not use the various conscious and sub-conscious filters that your own culture represents.
My talk centred around a number of concrete cases or examples of how I have met with and experienced other cultures. These examples show the mistakes of a novice, and how the new friends are understanding and accepting of mistakes. But, they also point to the limitations of cultures – in some cases I have learned that no amount of understanding and acceptance on my part would make a difference in the case of a culture whose members were not interested in understanding and exhibiting tolerance.
Through this repeated process of getting into a culture, of increased understanding, it is possible to connect to it in a very different way than that which is characteristic of the average traveller. To understand is to connect, and to connect is to understand.
The audience at this TEDx talk, some 8-900 persons, were Romanian. Towards the end I made the point that while many among us have to travel far and wide to find the exotic other, my audience did not have to do that. The exotic other is in their midst, on the other side of a cultural abyss that few tries to cross, both ways. This was a reference to the ethnic group Roma whose members live right outside the conference arena (while likely nobody in the audience were Roma). I challenged them to begin exploring Roma as a bona fide example of the exotic other, and in the process contribute to bridging and breaking down this cultural abyss.
Finally, I explained how learning about "the other" results in the acquired capability of stepping outside, as it were, one's own culture. And this feat, more psychological than anything else, is tantamount to learning about oneself and the own culture in a new, deep, and profound way. The essence of this is that your culture is not better than any other culture. It is just another way of organizing life, of relating to others and to the environment, and is just one of thousands of different ways of doing this. This cultural relativistic way of understanding cultures and cultural differences is perhaps the most important contribution that social anthropology can give to addressing today's problems of conflicts between cultures, at both collective and inter-personal levels.
Lars T Soeftestad
(1) This TEDx event took place in Bucharest, Romania, on 7 November 2015.
(2) Supras's account on Vimeo includes links to the TEDx presentation as well as an interview with me (see Source). The interview, "A Social Science Response to Land Degradation", was done at a conference of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) at Windhoek, Namibia, 16-27 September 2013. Both the TEDx interview and the UNCCD presentation are also available on YouTube.
(3) Image credit: TEDx Bucharest. The image shows Lars Soeftestad while giving the presentation.
(4) Relevant Devblog articles: "To Travel or Not to Travel ..." at: https://devblog.no/en/article/travel-or-not-travel | "Mass tourism: Experience and Alienation" at: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/mass-tourism-experience-and-alienation | "Appropriation of Indigenous Cultural Property" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/appropriation-indigenous-cultural-property
(5) Permalink. URL: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/traveling-through-cultures
(6) This article was published 23 September 2016. It was revised 11 November 2020.
Vimeo. n.d. "Supras Ltd." URL: http://www.vimeo.com/supras.