Is Your International Travel Destroying Your Moral Compass?

My son was a baby when our family moved to Switzerland. If you have any stereotypes of the Swiss in your head, it’s probably that they are clean and orderly. This stereotype overwhelmingly plays out. For example, the street cleaner truck goes down my suburban street every week. If someone spray paints graffiti at the tram stop (my favorite was a group that used to go around spray painting their zip code with a stencil), it will be cleaned and gone in less than 24 hours. And crossing the street? You never, ever, go against the light. I have seen people stand at perfectly clear streets, while they wait for the light to change, even if it means missing their bus.

When my son was three, we took a trip to Italy. While Italy has better food than the Swiss, they don’t believe in cleanliness the way the Swiss do, nor are traffic lights any more than suggestions for pedestrians. While walking down the street in Milan, he turned to me and said, rather indignantly “Somebody needs to clean this place up!” Then he absolutely, positively refused to cross the light when there was a “red man” instead of a “green man” on the sign. While everyone else crossed, he and I stood and waited for the light to change. People looked at us like we were weirdos.

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13 thoughts on “Is Your International Travel Destroying Your Moral Compass?

  1. Absent a compelling emergency, fare — not “fair” — -dodging is morally wrong, since a fare-dodger is stealing a service, which costs money to provide, for which they have not paid. However, I would not consider crossing against the light — when there is no traffic — to be morally wrong. Morality should be based on whether or not someone is harmed. No one is harmed when someone walks across a street — even when the light is red — if there is no oncoming traffic. Some laws are based on morality — those against stealing, murder, etc. — some are based on notions of public decency, and some may be purely regulatory.

    1. But that view of morality is itself a culture-specific one. There are plenty of places where going against the good order of the community *is* immoral.

      1. Exactly fposte. And i can see how experiencing that can be confusing for your brain.

        We paid a bribe when we were in Bosnia. We offered 50 Euro and the police officer said that was too much and gave us change. Ha!

        If a police officer attempted to get a bribe in Switzerland it would never go through! But in Bosnia? Well, our options were pay the bribe or sit on the side of the road forever.

    2. Crossing against the light (when there is no traffic) can actually be desirable, as it improves efficiency. You would think the Swiss would be all over that. 🙂

  2. This article fits in well with the delays happening at USA international airports.There is a certain amount of time needed to process coming into the country and somehow over the years, people have found ways to get around the wait either by monetary reasons or so-called “special” pass which gets one pass the review point. (Similar to waiting for the light to turn green or not). Nobody likes to wait, but sometimes it is better to wait. All the people complaining are not used to waiting when they should have been especially if they have all their paperwork in hand.

    1. When you say “special pass,” do you mean Global Entry?

      Because any citizen can get that. You just have to go through the process. Trust me – it is worth it to spend an afternoon at the TSA (or Homeland Security?) office for your interview and to pay $100 to be able to skip the line.

  3. I do my best to fit in when I’m in a place, but I gotta say–jaywalking in London (everybody does it) scares the crap out of me. My auntie and I would go somewhere and she would just zip across, whereas I was like, “WAIT WAIT AAAAHHH”. I finally got used to doing it on smaller streets, but it still made me nervous! If you’re not used to looking the opposite way for oncoming traffic, I don’t recommend it. Visitors do get killed that way.

    I don’t dare do it in Los Angeles. The main streets are so wide I feel like I can barely make it before the light changes anyway. Traffic does not like to stop there!

  4. I’m wondering if there’s a 3rd factor at play that correlates to both international travel and ‘reduced’ morality: wealth.

    Those with lots more money are more likely to travel internationally (and more often, which adds to that Country Count).
    Is it possible that those with more money are also more likely to have more flexible morality?

    Perhaps the folks running these studies accounted for this, but I didn’t see that note in the extract (though they did note the similarity across age and other demographics) or in the press treatment of it.

    Just a thought.

    1. Sounds possible to me. Travel isn’t affecting my moral compass. I have no money to travel.

  5. I love Evil HR Lady’s blog, and I relate to her quite well as I am also an American expat in Western Europe and also a religious person (highly unusual for Americans in the region, but on the plus side religion has been a catalyst to make local friends).

    This study is interesting, and it suggests that a lot of modern cosmopolitan living does not “broaden cultural horizons” but rather flattens one’s sensibilities down to the lowest common denominator. This corroborates with what I have observed: *most* people who visit foreign countries do not and cannot blend into the backdrop. This applies to some extent even when they speak the local language and, these days, live in the country (given the ease of associating mostly with expats). We tend to be “in the country but not of it,” and this can lead to questionable behavior when we forget that we are in an active society and someone else’s home and not our personal playground or holiday from real life.

    The “fish out of water” trying to “keep it real” is a classic problem, but for as globalized as the world has become, I don’t think we really deal much with this phenomenon beyond simple buzzwords.

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