I travel a lot, and the more I travel the more I become convinced that making fun of people is stupid. I still do it, because sometimes you just can’t help yourself, but I try to only do it when I have the right context. It’s kind of like my post about accents: I talk differently from you because we come from different regions and backgrounds, yet we both assume that the differences come because the other person is dumb or uneducated. It’s my theory that most things in life are like this: When people do things you think are stupid, it’s probably something totally normal where they come from, and they think you’re the stupid one.
Let’s take driving as an example, because over the past two months I’ve had the chance to drive through a ton of different states of the US. Many people think Utah is full of horrible drivers, but this has never been my experience: I can always get where I want to go, in the time I expect it to take, and I rarely ever feel frustrated or endangered by the bad drivers so many people claim to see. Are am I wrong? Are all those other people wrong? I think the truer, more meaningful interpretation is that people in Utah drive the way I expect them to, so I think they drive well; I know how to drive in Utah because I’ve done it all my life. People who come in from out of state (and with two large universities in a relatively small valley, my area has a LOT of people from out of state) don’t have that background, and expect people to drive in a different way, so they think Utah drivers are “bad” when what they really mean is “different from me.”
Consider, for example, California. I drive through there quite a bit when I’m tour, and when I’m visiting friends and family, and every time I do I get frustrated with people who drive in the left lane so I can’t get around them. Don’t these people know how to use the passing lane? They’re such horrible drivers! But the more I drive there, the more I realize that they do know how to use the passing lane, they just use it differently than I do. They’re using it correctly based on their own subculture.
The midwest is another example. As I drove to Columbus a few weeks I noticed something weird when I got to Indiana, and then the trend continued in Ohio: people were tailgating me, and I mean hardcore. They would come up really close behind me, and in Utah that means “I want to go around you,” so I’d pull over to let them by and then…they’d pull over as well, staying really close behind me. This drove me up the wall, and I started to shout about how they were all such horrible drivers and nobody in the Ohio knew how to drive, but then I realized that this was silly–everyone was getting where they needed to go, and no one was crashing into anyone else, so they obviously knew what they were doing, they were just doing it differently than I expected. They have, so to speak, a smaller bubble of personal driving space than I’m accustomed to in Utah. I asked a few friends from Ohio about it, and they said “oh yeah, that’s really common here–if you get in close behind someone you can either draft them and improve your mileage, or you can speed and let the cops pull them over instead.” Once I understood the new rules and customs of Ohio driving, my driving experience improved greatly, and I realized that Ohio drivers are actually very careful and polite–you just have to know what’s going on.
Of course, when I asked a friend from LA about California driving customs, he laughed and said “no, we’re all horrible drivers,” so maybe my theory falls apart.
Now, keep in mind that this theory still has ample room for stupidity: you can’t explain every dumb thing somebody does just by background, because sometimes people do dumb things even within their own context. Utahns have no idea how to use a roundabout, because up until a few years ago we really didn’t have any, and that’s fine; we’ll figure it out eventually. On the other hand, Utahns also don’t have any idea how to use a four-way stop, and there’s really no excuse for that because we’ve had four-way stops forever. There’s no magical local customs you can learn for getting through a Utah four-way stop, it’s just a mess no matter where you’re from.
So I suppose, in the end, my point is that different people are different, and that doesn’t make them bad. Beyond that, I suppose my auxiliary point is the completely non-revolutionary idea that traveling makes you more accepting of other people’s differences, which is a good reason for everyone to travel as much as possible. See how other people live, and realize that despite being different from you they’re completely happy with the way things are, and you’ll start to see the world in a new way. It’s kind of frightening, actually, but ultimately makes the world a much more awesome place.