As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been using Bumble BFF to try to meet people in Cork, the city I moved to in November of 2021. As you may know, when you make a Bumble BFF profile, there are a series of prompts that you can choose from–I was looking through them and chose one titled “The world would be a better place with more…”
On my Bumble BFF profile, I wrote that the world would be a better place with more curiosity. I happen to also think it would be a better place with more kindness, compassion, respect, and empathy, but I think that, on some level, all of those traits trace back to curiosity. In this post, I’ll explore what curiosity means to me, how it can change your perspective, and ways that you can harness curiosity to be a more empathetic traveler and citizen of the world.
What is curiosity?
Curiosity is the feeling of wonder you get when you look at something, when you try to piece together how it works. You can be in a state of curiosity about anything in your life, from, “how do planes work?” to “why do I feel drained after a call with my friend?” Curiosity helps us to see new perspectives and to learn because it quiets our ego–the voice that tells us that we should already know or that the answer doesn’t matter–in favor of trying to figure out what’s going on.
Our minds try to help us make sense of the world by writing stories about our experiences, regardless of whether or not they’re helpful. For instance, if someone cuts us off in traffic, we often find ourselves writing a story about that person: “They’re rude.” “They can’t drive.” “They’re going to kill someone.” Sound familiar? At no point were we curious about their experience of the situation; our egos were in charge. In our minds, we were victims of this driver and their carelessness or recklessness and they were villains with mal intent.
What could curiosity teach us about this interaction? First, it might ask us to investigate whether we might have actually been in the wrong or contributed to the situation. Are there ways we could have reacted that would have made the situation safer? Were we driving too fast, or in the wrong lane? Then, we might consider the perspective of the other driver, were they distracted? Upset? A new driver? Could they have been avoiding another car that you never saw?
The more curious we become about the interaction, the less we feel attached to who was “right” and who was “wrong,” leaving us more room to wonder why the situation unfolded the way it did. As a part of this process, you might find yourself empathizing with other people in ways that are unexpected. Have you ever made a mistake when you were driving? Has anyone ever responded to you with generosity? Have you ever responded to another driver in a way that you later regretted? Curiosity can help us connect with our humanity and empathy, leaving space for multiple coexisting truths.
The opposite of curiosity
I had a crash course on curiosity the other day, when I went to a yoga class led by Sara, a yoga teacher who holds classes near my home. Sara’s class was a type of specialty yoga I had never tried before, and I wasn’t sure I was “getting it” even after my second time attending her class. After finishing the class, I tried to talk to Sara when the other students had gone.
I asked Sara about her approach to yoga, and commented on how different it was from the American classes I’ve been taking for years. Her response to my comment was unexpectedly negative; she shared that her approach was research-based, unlike most yoga teachers’ because they only get 200 hours of teaching. She went on to say that most yoga teachers learn easy alignment tricks because they don’t have time to learn more in depth anatomy. There are, of course, issues with 200 hour courses–there’s a great podcast episode about it included in this post.
When I got home, I could have cried because I was so upset by our conversation. I was upset that Sara, who was basically a stranger to me, had implied that I couldn’t tell the difference between a skilled teacher and someone fresh out of a 200 hour course. I was upset that she had attacked the skills of the teachers I love. I was upset that I had spent money on her class and left without really learning anything new.
My initial response was to try to fight fire with fire. I googled my yoga teachers’ credentials and confirmed that they were, in fact, highly trained. I googled this yoga teacher and her credentials and tried to compare them. I had arguments with her in my mind where I defended the things I’d learned and the people I’ve learned from over the years. I felt angry and defensive and wanted to retaliate.
Instead of doing any of those things, I chose to get curious about the situation with Sara, and I came to a few conclusions. First, I think that when I spoke with her, she had been out of curiosity, and the opposite of curiosity is preaching. She preached at me about her issues with the yoga industry without being curious about me, my experience, my reference points, or what I wanted to know from her. My knee jerk reaction was to try to preach back at her, to prove that, in fact, it was I who was right.
I later called one of my friends, Lara, who is also a yoga teacher and she surprised me with her immediate compassion for Sara. She told me that Sara probably felt really upset after our conversation, and probably regretted the way it happened. Lara shared with me some of her own struggles to use research-backed approaches in her classes. She also said that she often tells people, “If you go to a yoga class and don’t like it, try another class. There is a yoga class for everybody, you just have to find yours.”
Once I made sense of that, I was also able to find some real compassion and empathy for Sara. She obviously cares deeply about what she does. She obviously feels that there’s a problem with the yoga industry that she wants to solve. And, after all, aren’t some of the best people in the world people who have problems that they want to solve? Also, haven’t I been guilty of doing this same thing many times before, preaching my perspective without listening to the other person? Sometimes we lose sight of the other person’s experience in the interest of furthering our own agenda, no matter what that may be.
What are you here to do?
I was reflecting on the situation with Sara and Lara’s remarks when I remembered something my yoga teacher, Nancy, had said in a class once. A student had asked her what the right way to do a pose was, and Nancy had answered, “Well, that depends–what are you here to do?” While I sat thinking about this experience with Sara, it hit me: Sara and I are here to do different things.
For Sara, the most important thing was training the body to move intuitively, correctly, and in a way backed by science. For me, the most important thing was having fun with my yoga practice, feeling strong, feeling connected to a sense of community, and feeling good in my body. Beyond my experience, I believe in helping the most people do the most movement in ways that are safe for the most people. Some curiosity on either Sara’s or my part might have helped connect our two goals, but without that, it was like we were on two sides of a debate hall, facing each other down.
The beauty in curiosity is that you can tap into it at any time. At any time, you can get curious about your experience or the experiences of others, and it can help you to change how you’re relating to the world around you. Curiosity about others’ experiences can also help to foster empathy and kindness; without curiosity about Sara’s experience, or even my own experience of that conversation with Sara, I don’t know that I would have learned so much from it.
I also reflected on my perceived victimhood in that conversation, like Sara had held me hostage and forced me to listen to her talk about yoga studies. The thing is, it’s not true. I was an agent in that conversation, too. I was a person with thoughts and feelings and experiences and I had agency; there is always a positive boundary that we can set with others by choosing what we want to pay attention to. You can read more about positive boundaries in the “Don’t play tug of war with people.” section of this post.
How can curiosity help us to travel better?
When we travel, there are lots of instances small and large when we have the opportunity to make assumptions about the people around us. There’s a common trope amongst American tourists that French people are rude. The story around this usually goes something like this: an American goes into a shop to buy something, approaches the counter with a smile and asks, in English, “Can I get a ____?” The person at the counter responds curtly, leaving the American tourist feeling dejected.
Upon returning home, the tourist usually says something like, “Paris was beautiful, but the French are just so rude!” What’s missing in this narrative? Some curiosity! Why would the Parisian respond like that? Are there ways that the tourist may have infringed on cultural norms in Paris? Are there ways that the tourist may have misinterpreted the response of the person in the shop? Cities everywhere have people who are rude, could the tourist just be overestimating the friendliness of their own city?
Related Post: 5 Things I Miss Most About America After Moving Abroad
On my most recent trip to Paris, I can’t think of an instance where someone was rude to me. I made a point of trying to greet every person with a “Bonjour!” when I entered their shop, but I don’t speak French. I don’t have specific memories of people being rude to me in Paris any of the times I’ve visited the city, but certainly there were interactions I didn’t understand.
I think the difference may lie in my willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, or my instinct to wonder why an interaction felt strange. When I respond with curiosity instead of instinctively blaming the other person or their culture for my discomfort, it leaves me room to both feel like the world is full of lovely, nice people and also to learn to act in ways that are increasingly culturally appropriate when I travel.
This instinct to write ourselves as the victims of interactions we don’t understand doesn’t serve us when we travel. Of course, there are sometimes legitimately dangerous situations when we travel–that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the moments when something confused us or someone responded in ways we weren’t expecting, those are the moments we can work to learn from.
For instance, on this recent trip to Paris, I went to lunch at a creperie with two friends and tried to order two carafes of cider with our meal. The waitress did not oblige, instead bringing only one for our meal though I’m fairly certain she heard and understood our request. Instead of being annoyed by this, we reasoned that she must have thought it was odd or inappropriate, and decided that it would be better to just bring one carafe to our table. The cultural context in which we ordered the cider was different than America, where we all grew up, so we needed to take the hint and adjust our order (and our behavior) accordingly.
Being a curious citizen of the world
You can cultivate a sense of curiosity about the world from home, without traveling to Paris. Sit in curiosity about our roles as political actors in our own lives and the actors around us.
Take the current situation in Ukraine, ask yourself and research: What does Russia want? What does Putin want? What does Ukraine want? Who gets to speak for Russia, and who gets to speak for Ukraine? Are there voices that we’re missing? Are there ways that we’ve flattened or decontextualized the conflict? Can we get really curious about the forces at play–not in a way that excuses or endorses or allows, but in a way that helps us gain perspective?
Then, can we get curious about our own role?
In what ways do we have agency that we’re not exercising? To whom can we lend our voice? Think about economics and the value of a dollar, from whom can you withhold your spending? Where can we simply listen? Where can we hold space for the pain and hurt and devastation and fears of others? When we look towards the future, who can we vote for who will do the most good? How can we fight the sense that we are powerless and small and unable to ask for change and peace and kindness and coexistence? In what ways can we connect to the humanity of the people on the front lines of the conflict?
So be curious, dear one! Look at the world and its people and animals and features and gifts like it’s the greatest, most intriguing gift you’ve ever been given. Marvel at the audacity of the grand canyon, at how it got to be so unbelievably enormous and expansive. Ponder why it is that humans are the size we are relative to the ocean. Question how cows go about choosing their best friends, and is it much different from us? If all the trees can communicate in a forest, what do they say on bright, sun-shiny days? Do their minds quiet into a sort of serene bliss, or do they make jokes and share their jovial feelings?
Be curious about the feelings of others as a practice, and use it as a way to cultivate empathy. Wonder what it would feel like to be sitting in Kiev, watching the news of Russia’s invasion. What would you be afraid of? Where would you go? What would you want the world to know about you and your life and the lives of your friends and neighbors?
Imagine living in Moscow and hearing of the invasion, would you sit glued to the news or would you try to distract yourself? Listen to stories from people living in Ukraine and Russia and try to understand their perspectives. Be curious about the experiences and forces and information that shapes their thinking and worldview, and be curious about what they won’t say. Where they won’t go. What are the parts that they edit out, and why might that be?
Make it a practice. Cultivate a commitment to curiosity as a way of being, a thing that you are, not a thing that you do.
You can read more from me by visiting my blog here.
Note: some names in this post have been changed.