Illustration by Dave Cutler
After high school, I went to Italy as an exchange student. One day, I was sitting at my host family’s dinner table, happily shoving pasta into my mouth and gulping down whole glasses of water, when the eldest daughter, Anna, spoke up.
“You know,” she said, “you’ll never get a girlfriend if you keep eating like that.”
“Eating like what?” I asked.
“Eating like this,” she said, and did her best impression of a prehistoric man feeding off a mammoth leg. I got a little defensive.
“What does it matter,” I snapped, “as long as the food gets into your mouth?”
“That is so American,” she said. “Here it is not like that. For example, Constanza is thinking about breaking up with her boyfriend because his manners are so bad.”
“Really?” I asked.
If she wanted to get my attention, she had it: Constanza was her beautiful, dark-haired friend. I had no idea that this was how I was eating, or that it mattered. I didn’t have a clue how I looked to others in this place where I was living.
When I tell this story, people tend to think that Anna was a little hard on me. I certainly didn’t take her feedback well at the time. But I look back on this lesson with gratitude, because I know that she helped start me on a path toward being a more creative person.
Last year, in one of the first major studies on the effects of living in another country, researchers found that exposure to a different culture may help explain why artists such as Hemingway, Nabokov, and Picasso did their best work either while living abroad or after returning home. Experiencing another culture can, they found, make you more creative.
William Maddux of INSEAD, an international business school and research institution, and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University ran five studies to gauge how well people solve “insight creativity tasks.” In the Duncker candle problem, for example, they gave subjects a picture showing a candle, a box of tacks, and a matchbook, and asked them to figure out how to attach the candle to a wall so that, when lit, no wax would drip on the floor. Of those who had lived abroad, 60 percent came up with the creative solution (using the empty box, tacked to the wall, as a candleholder), as compared with 42 percent of those who hadn’t lived abroad. Another test required pairs of subjects to creatively negotiate the sale of a gas station when there was a gap between what the “buyer” was willing to pay and what the “seller” was willing to accept. When both subjects had lived in another country, they arrived at an agreement 70 percent of the time. When neither had, they never reached a deal. In yet another test, participants had to draw an alien from another galaxy. Those who had lived abroad drew “more atypical sensory features … less similar to Earth creatures, and were overall more creative.”
Maddux and Galinsky not only found a link between living abroad and the ability to solve these problems but also discovered that the more time people had spent in another culture and the better they had adapted to it, the more creative they were. Simply recalling their life abroad gave participants a boost in how creatively they solved the task.
In another recent study, subjects completed a creative writing exercise after watching a slideshow that focused on either American or Chinese culture, or that compared the two. Those who saw the slideshow comparing the cultures wrote more creatively than those who viewed a presentation about only one culture.
Maddux and Galinsky didn’t observe the creativity effect that they’d seen in people who had lived in another country among those who had briefly traveled abroad. However, some studies have found that, in general, students are better (and more creative) at problem solving when they are told that the problems were written by people in another part of the country or the world. Research has shown that having a “multicultural experience” can enhance one’s creativity, and that learning a foreign language can benefit the brain in areas ranging from complex thinking to mental flexibility to interpersonal skills.
These effects likely have to do with acquiring what is called reflected knowledge – understanding how you look from another culture’s point of view – as well as how much you internalize that view. Reflected knowledge allows you to see things as an outsider. Once people live abroad and learn to see themselves and their culture from afar, those things never look the same again.
This shift in perspective can be a painful process. For me, it started a few days after the incident at the dinner table. By then, I had started to regret my belligerence. In my mind, I kept replaying the image of myself as the caveman dinner guest. I swallowed my pride, went back to Anna, and asked her to teach me proper Italian table manners.
I learned the rules: Take small bites. Sip, don’t chug. Don’t belch. Don’t undo your belt and announce how full you are. And when you’re finished, place your knife and fork parallel across your plate.
Taking my first tentative steps outside my own culture, I began to see my language and beliefs and customs as not inherently right or wrong. Once I started down this road, there was no turning back. It became easier to understand other views, other mannerisms, other ways of being. I tried many of these on, in the way an actor tries on different characters. Along the way, my manners improved. And I did get a girlfriend.
But in the end I got much more: I found myself in a world that felt rich and full of possibilities that, if I could find a way to imagine them, were mine to create.
Frank Bures is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in Harper's, Esquire, and the Los Angeles Times.