When I visit cultures that are very different from what I am used to, there exists this constant duality of states in every interaction – I noted the differences and at the same time look out for underlying similarities.
The differences are usually immediate and obvious – they speak a different language, they wear different clothes, they eat different food etc. The differences trigger all manner of responses – subconscious gut/emotive reactions and rational thoughts. These I file away, as open-mindedly as I possibly can, as raw input.
I also find myself seeking out the similarities*. There are patterns of behaviours that I can identify across all of the different cultures and people I have had the opportunity to meet through my travels.
This process of simultaneously acknowledging the differences without overt judgement, and seeking similarities through pattern identification echoes the process of creative thinking/ideation. This is the design thinker’s ability to accept paradoxes and ambiguities while seeing deeply beyond the apparent surface chaos to understand core patterns.
Visiting an “alien” culture is an exciting flood of new input. Some people are overwhelmed by this and fall into the “why can’t this be like back home?” trap. Similarly, many business people trained in the exacting art of numbers-based deductive reasoning and risk management, will find in almost impossible to even temporarily accept paradoxes and ambiguities essential to generating new ideas.
Perhaps travel is a good way to flex these muscles? Learning to be accepting of differences and open to finding similarities will also make travelling a far more rewarding and pleasant experience to boot!
* And there are core similarities – which is hardly surprising given we are all made of exactly the same genetic material (though often conveniently ignored by all too many people with vested interest in exaggerating the differences.) Regardless of culture, the fundamentals of humanity apply. We all want to be heard, valued, and appreciated. We all have broadly the same set of needs from basic survival and safety to self expression and self-actualisation.