Hiking Meets Culture

Wanna go for a hike?

It’s a common question when you live near the Great Smoky Mountains, like I do. I’ve always been a hiker. I grew up hiking the Adirondack mountains of New York, and no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve tried to find a way to get out on the trail on a regular basis.

Now, as I work with immigrants in Knoxville, Tennessee, I get to combine my love of hiking with my work. (Yippy!) I lead hikes with some international friends about once a month. It has been interesting to notice the different cultural perspectives on hiking. In some countries, hiking is a common outdoor hobby. In others, however, the idea is met with puzzled curiosity. “Nobody walks around in the woods for fun back home!” is a surprisingly common response to my suggestion of recreational activity. Apparently the wilderness is not something to be explored and enjoyed in some cultures.

The following account from an international student studying in the U.S. sheds some light on this ‘anti-hiking’ perspective.

“During the initial week of college in Vermont, I met Scott, my first American friend. He seemed very excited to meet an Afghan. Scott thought that because I came from a mountainous country, I might enjoy hiking trails in the area. So, he asked me if I wanted to go hiking with him. With some cautious reservation, I agreed. In Afghanistan, people don’t hang out with strangers. Friendships and bonds are mostly formed within a family community or tribe. Most members of the community are raised together and know each other through continuing interactions over the years. So trust is built either through family connections or over extended periods of time. Until a strong bond is built, one can’t just go into the woods with a recent acquaintance. While I could not fully trust Scott, I wanted to make new friends and so decided to take a risk. As we went hiking, the further into the woods we went, I began to panic. I perceived myself to be in the middle of a vast jungle. I was worrying about whether Scott might stab or abduct me, or perhaps sell my organs. You see, kidnapping, human trafficking, and robbery through the use of physical threat are commonplace in remote areas of Afghanistan, where there is little or no security. Growing up in or near such an environment, Afghans develop a mistrust of strangers. That is why I never walked in front of Scott, but always by his side or behind him, instinctively fearing a possible attack.”

from Lurie, Joe. Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures. Cultural Detective. Kindle Edition.

Lessons to learn

“Wanna go for a hike?” takes on an entirely different meaning for friends from another culture.

This story ended well. In general, most cultural misunderstandings can be resolved when certain skills are applied. What are these skills? Elsewhere on this blog, I describe 21 InterCultural skills. Check it out. I think you’ll agree that many of these skills came into play for the Afghan student and for Scott, his new American friend.

For example, in reaching out to invite his foreign friend on a hike, Scott showed optimism and confidence, the first of the helpful attitudes. People who interact with those of another culture believe that cultural encounters can be embraced, understood and worked through.

As for the Afghan student, he had to assume goodwill in what seemed like a risky situation. When you don’t know what a cultural norm means, do you assume the worst? To assume goodwill is a more constructive attitude, and is the last, but not the least, of the helpful attitudes.

I am not one who believes that we will solve all of our problems in this life. But I am convinced that many of our cultural misunderstandings can be resolved simply by having the right attitude, becoming more knowledgeable, and taking constructive actions.

1 Comment

  1. We often assume that everyone approaches life as we do. Understanding cultural differences honors our international friends and allows us to build genuine, trusting relationships. Great article and a good reminder of how simple things can be misunderstood!

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