Keep Being Curious

I was riding the subway in New York City recently when I overheard a group of women speaking in Swedish. In an obviously over-excited tone I interjected, “Är du svensk?”, to which they, equally excited, replied yes. They told me that they were from Stockholm, and were living in New York on a work exchange program. We chatted for a few minutes about the attitude toward vacation in the U.S. vs. in Sweden, about what my time studying at SSE was like, and about the St. Lucia performance they had just attended the day before. I felt connected to them for the obvious reason that I had spent time in Sweden, but even more so because here were three complete strangers whom I had just met who were just as interested in me as I was in them. That interaction, though brief, was nevertheless quite powerful. It brought to mind one of the lessons I learned through my time with the Swedish Program that I hadn’t quite put to words yet. The lesson was on the importance of being curious.

It’s uncustomary for strangers to talk to one another on the subway in NYC, much in the way that the same holds true in Stockholm. Curiosity has an uncanny ability to erase these social norms almost entirely, though. When I look close enough, when I pause long enough, when I exercise enough curiosity about people who come from backgrounds different from my own, something becomes clear as day to me: in many ways, in spite of our cultural idiosyncrasies, humans are all actually quite similar, no matter where we come from. We care deeply about our friends and families. We love to laugh, to sing, to smile and be heard. We make giant mistakes and make up for them with equally giant gestures of compassion. But these things can only become apparent if one is curious enough to look closely in the first place.

When you’re living in a foreign country, it’s natural to be on the lookout for culture shock. In fact, during my first few weeks in Stockholm, I was determined to deal with it head on; to preempt it, so to speak. But I now understand that preempting differences—anticipating all the reasons I might not connect with another person—is a poor use of time, compared with starting a conversation to discover all the respects in which we might be the same. (It’s also way less fun.) Talking to people, all people, is the best way to build bridges between cultures, and this, I have now internalized, requires curiosity: a willingness to talk to strangers on subways, planes, buses, trains and perhaps the occasional rickshaw. This is a gift of a lesson with its roots in my time spent living abroad that keeps on giving, a lesson that the Swedish Program has helped me to take to heart.

Philip Musey
Harvard University
Fall 2015