While surviving in the middle of Africa is probably not terribly close to “reality” for most Americans, travel abroad certainly can be. The Amazing Race shows some of the problems Americans may encounter when traveling without knowing the lay of the land ahead of time. What can we learn from this show and the people on it?
Sadly, I can't help but think that where boundaries within and across cultures are violated, the greater U.S. public takes on a grotesque intrigue, which seems to be the impetus for reality shows. Yet, in the wake of September 11, not surprisingly, conflict doesn't appear to be the penchant of the masses any longer. The reality shows have played up a fair amount of tension among members, and between members and those on the outside of the "game." Television gluttons and non-gluttons alike grabbed on to these reality shows the minute they hit the major networks (The Real World had been "for the kids" – now there was something for the adults.) Survivor, Temptation Island, and others have proven that scripted violence and conflict is just not sufficient – the American public was prepared to take reality a step further into the real world, and not of the MTV type.
But ratings have dropped and this may or may not be a good thing. It can probably be deduced that the terrorist attacks were all too real for us. Suddenly, the reality shows took on a childish appeal. Perhaps Americans now see that conflict is not so favorable.
The flipside, however, is that we may learn other things from watching Americans manage themselves in unfamiliar territory, in places that many people haven't seen in their lives. I avoided all the reality shows like the plague as they came out, but The Amazing Race caught my attention because this is real. People do travel, people do go to different countries and interact with cultures without having or giving any thought to cultural awareness. Americans tend not to drop themselves in a secluded spot in Africa and try to "survive." That is not reality for our culture.
Besides, people who do actually live there have learned to survive on their own accord without camera crews and a big money prize. They survive because they have to live, not because they've always wanted an SUV. But generally, many Americans either have some interest in traveling, whether within the U.S. or abroad, or they have made that journey already. My first trip to Asia was on a whim – I flew to Asia for three months with no guidebook, just a dream of adventuring into the unknown. But how culturally sensitive was that? I didn't take time to learn about where I was going, to understand that I might run into incidents beyond my control. A friend once said, when you travel and something goes wrong, it was probably your fault! The groups traveling in The Amazing Race have no clue where they are heading. Dropping six very American couples into New Delhi (or "New Del-high" as one of the contestants called it) was perhaps the most telling moment of how insensitive and unprepared most of those from our culture can be. The lawyers seemed to be the only ones keeping their cool, ironically enough.
What should we learn from this? From my studies in intercultural communication and my travels, I've learned that our individualistic "me" culture is offensive to others unless we temper that to the level that is tolerable for both – and this is especially vital in the host culture. From watching this show, we can learn how our selfish ways don't jibe with the rest of the world, and, at the same time, see that our methods of conflict management are not always appropriate.