Travel Really Is “Fatal To Prejudice, Bigotry, And Narrow-Mindedness”

Mark Twain famously said,

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Yet there are plenty of well-traveled people who are also narrow-minded. So is it true, overall and in the limit, in spite of counter-examples?

New research suggests it is.

Mormons sent on missions became more tolerant of undocumented immigrants, seeing them as individual people with their own stories rather than a social class to be othered. The effect was even greater among those whose missions involved speaking a foreign (non-English) language.

Research suggests that traveling abroad while young and still forming worldviews and spending time speaking with ordinary people at your destination appears to foster Twain’s notion of becoming more open-minded and empathetic towards others without respect to geographic boundaries.

Not all travel meets these conditions, of course.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was raised in Puerto Rico and speak fluent Spanish. I also spent a career in ground operations for an airline. It’s definitely true (for me at least) that travel changes your views about others, as does working in a field where you meet thousands of people from everywhere.
    I’ve met many wonderful people from all over the world. Looks, cultures, and languages differ. We’re all concerned about the same basic things, and we all bleed red.

  2. I agree, though growing up in New York City the exposure to many other groups and cultures also had that effect. As a person teaching college level geography I’ve found that even a little book learning exposure to other cultures can begin to reverse a lot of stereotypes among those of my students who have not traveled, but of course nothing replaces actually being there and meeting people.

    That said, just “travel” by itself doesn’t always work. I’ve met a fair number of folks who go to foreign countries and then virtually hide in resorts or other gated communities and never see local sights or get out and meet the people. And especially on cruise ships many have never read up on where they are–some aren’t sure where they’ve stopped! In those cases preconceptions are much harder to change.

  3. I think it should be mandatory that every college student be forced to study abroad as part of the requirements to graduate.

  4. “Travel Really Is “Fatal To Prejudice, Bigotry, And Narrow-Mindedness””
    and then we read the commenters on your blog and the concept is proven false. Seriously, some of your very own audience either comes here to promote their ignorance or proves the thought wrong. Maybe the comment should be related to leisure international travel. It certainly isn’t true for the American business traveler.

  5. I speak 5 languages, and I have traveled the world for most of my life. I find most people to be very friendly and kind. For the most part, when I encounter a bad apple, they are American citizens.

  6. Ray, I agree with you that there are some real pips who comment on this blog. But, sample bias occurs when generalizing from a small group and often leads to wrong conclusions. Added to the mix, there is one troll who uses multiple names, which gives the appears of broader adherence to a sick view.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with that. If I’m only flying in F/J and I have to see the poor on my plane or when I charter with the kids, they’re more disgusted by the poor.

  8. Absolutely my favorite quote. However, it’s a good idea to leave the expat & tourist areas. Senior Frogs & the Hyatt bar in CUN isnt Mexico.

  9. It can go both ways. Through travel, I’ve developed both better and worse views of countries.

    My view of France worsened. It’s a bit primitive. My exposure to France on multiple trips is about 16 months total time.

    My view of Singapore has improved after seeing the place. My exposure to Singapore is more than a month over multiple trips.

    My view of India worsened but my view of Chile improved.

  10. It also leads to appropriation of ideas from foreign countries. Many ideas have been stolen on shark tank from seeing locals in a foreign country with a unique concept.

  11. For more than 50 years teenagers throughout Europe travel together all over Europe by special teen fares. Usually with other friends. Never with adults. I have never heard negative thoughts from those teens about people in other countries. They came to learn about others and have fun.

    Too bad that in the States most parents would let their teens travel without an adult.

    Also many of them also take a gap year, between high school and college to travel. As an aside, most can speak at least 2-3 languages. My wife, a Finn learned to speak five, all without ever getting near a McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC.

  12. Mormons tolerant?! Ha. I grew up in a town of Mormons, they were the most racist, intolerant bunch of people you will ever come across. Horrible, horrible people.

  13. Travel within your own country is also enlightening. I know people who have been to over 200 countries, yet refuse to fly to Wisconsin or Kansas or Idaho, only over them. They never leave their East Coast gentrified bubble except to travel to another bubble and despise anyone who doesn’t think, act, and vote like them. Despite their “sophisitication” and wealth, they are as ignorant as the person in Appalachia who has never ventured further from their home than the county seat. They know everything about the artificial environs of Mustique, yet nothing about the suburbs 25 miles from their home.

    At least Twain bothered to live an actual life before commenting on it.

  14. James, the more one is exposed to the wealthy, the more one is disgusted by them as well. Your comment suggesting that the poor have cornered the market on disgusting is naive. Are you a millennial?

    Irrespective of wealth, for some, disgusting behavior is a result of ignorance. Other others, disgusting behavior is a result of choice.

  15. @Gary Steiger – Try talking to a Vietnamese refugee from that war. You’ll find out that the Vietnamese aren’t so sweet – they were quite capable of horrific atrocities to their own people, which is why we were there. Millions fled, and often died, for a reason. The Cambodians also managed to make quite a mess of it all by themselves after we left.

    As the line from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn goes, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.” I dare say that of all the people who participate on this board, more than a few are capable of truly horrific things under certain circumstances – but I honestly can’t tell who they would be. And neither can they.

  16. If you talk about Vietnam, you have to distinguish between the north and the south. Very different cultures. While the war is long past, in the north, you find the issues to which C_M refers.

  17. @Jerry, that describes every country other than the United States. There is a reason people all over the world come here to study and then to work full time.

    And most of the United States is also a s**thole. By land area, 99.9% of the US is a s**thole. Only coastal cities, a few inland small cities like Denver, and a smattering of college towns with an educated populace are non-s**tholes. Venture away even 30 minutes by car from these places and you are waist deep in s**t.

  18. Traveling expands your perspectives. I find it makes me appreciate what I have, how we could make things better, and to understand (not necessarily agree with) alternative viewpoints.

  19. @Eric H — not a lot to understand.

    Do you support a woman’s right to an abortion?

    Do you support the right of same-sex adults to enter into a consenting marriage?

    Do you acknowledge white privilege, the white supremacist history of the United States, and do you vow to amplify marginalized voices in your community, and support reparations and the tearing down of systemically unjust institutions, as modern American capitalism?

    If you do not support all of the above you are not considered a decent person.

  20. There is no uninterrupted straight line between increased travel opportunities and decreased racism. I would even say that the US, Canada, Europe and Asia have seen a resurgence in racism; and the US aspect of that resurgence even shows on VFTW.

    And sometimes society can even be such that a prior generation may have been less racist than the next generations.

    I would not be surprised if regular long-haul flying American and Canadian FFs tend to be less racist on average than regular long-haul flying continental European FFs. Sort of ironic in some way, given it’s usually insecurity of various sorts that comes with individuals being more xenophobic; and yet the welfare systems in continental Europe are far more comprehensive than they are in the US and even Canada.

    Americans and Canadians in the upper half of the socio-economic spectrum are more open to forming close friendships and family relationships with visible racial/ethnic minorities at home than the European and Asian equivalents are to do the same at home. The social media companies are a gold mine for comparative studies.

  21. Sharpay,

    Your characterization of a lot of “flyover country” areas doesn’t align with my experience of those areas. Such areas too often have their own (and unfortunately growing) problems — and I’ve seen rural places in the Deep South that reminded me of the kind of stark poverty I’d see in India decades ago — but there is a lot to love about a lot of places in a lot of “flyover country”. Personally, I have encountered fewer nasty people in such parts of the US than in supposedly more “cosmopolitan” parts of the US and Europe.

    I don’t buy the idea that a frequent, international flying 60+ year-old guy coming early off a flight from “tolerant” Amsterdam is necessarily a less racist douche-bag than an American nonagenarian WW2 veteran who hasn’t once left his home-state in the American Midwest except when it was to serve during WW2 (in the European theater). If anything, my experience says that there is more of a connection between US military service and being less racist on average than in being a frequent flyer of a comparable or younger age in continental Europe.

  22. What’s always amusing is how implicit in these discussions are the assumptions that prejudice and bigotry are inherently ignorant, that your world view is correct and not narrow-minded, and that with the proper enrichment others will come to see that world view as correct as well.

  23. Every American must spend a summer in a rural village in China Vietnam Cambodia north Korea or Venezuela. To truly understand how lucky and privileged they are to have been born and grown up in capitalist America. Once you have seen what socialism really is you will never want it

  24. China and Vietnam have economically boomed under their versions of crony Communist-Party-Capitalism. They both went from:

    a) being countries of extreme, massive poverty for the overwhelming majority and a tiny middle class to

    b) being countries with middle class proportions that grew much more under Communist-Party-Capitalism

    than under colonial and pre-Communist Party rule.

    Would they both already have been economically more successful for their populations in the modern post-colonial/post-occupation periods if they had played out of the more capitalistic Pakistani and Indonesian model? Doubt it, unfortunately.

    You want to see extreme rural poverty, there are still some parts in the US where people live lives that remind me more of poor villages in India than of “the Germany inside China”.

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