The role of travel in establishing expertise

This post is more than 3 years old.

008_18.JPGAt a recent training I attended, some foofaraw was made about the fact that the facilitators had come all the way from Boulder, Colorado to Indiana to share their knowledge and expertise with us.  Those facilitators in turn made some note of the fact that their knowledge and expertise was derived from their own trip to meet with others at a training in the UK, and from some other journeys that they'd taken involving significant travel.

Around the same time I noted a historical reference to a 1959 headline in the Earlhamite, "Southern religious leader visits Earlham."  It was about a then only mildly well known Martin Luther King, Jr. visiting the College and speaking at the Meetinghouse there.  Being a religious leader from the South surely had different connotations then than it does now, but I was still struck by the headline's focus on the origin and destination of the speaker, less on his message or credentials.

Ever since, I've been thinking about the role that travel plays in establishing credibility and expertise for someone when they come to speak or teach on a given topic.

Based at least on my observations, it seems that we're generally willing to assign some extra credibility to someone when they've come over a distance to be present, and we tend to defer to them at least a little bit more because of it.

At first, this seemed a little strange to me.  In a highly connected world where almost anyone has some kind of access to the knowledge and expertise of people around the globe, let alone the artistic and cultural insights of the same, you wouldn't think we'd still be so enlivened by encountering someone from afar.  "Why bother flying someone in when we can just watch their powerpoint slides online and listen to their podcast?"

But I think there's still some innate human curiosity about those who are not from our own communities, who might represent a peek into a world we do not know.  Even in a largely culturally homogenized world, we still wonder what we might learn from encountering someone from another town, another country, another way of life.  "What will they be wearing?  How will they speak and present their information?  What experiences have they had access to that I never will?  How are my fellow humans getting along in other parts of the world?"   These are questions we might be able to answer academically through Wikipedia, but there's no substitute for a face-to-face encounter that provides the experience of something a little new, a little different.

The actual act of traveling has some significance too.  I've noted that when I'm asked to speak to groups or organizations outside of Richmond, there's much more of a sense of adventure and exhileration for me and for the group I'm speaking to.  We talk about the details of the travel experience in a way that we wouldn't if I was coming from across town.  "Chris is here all the way from Richmond, and he drove or flew X hours, and let's just soak that in for a few seconds."  Maybe we just want to honor the effort and time that's been exerted to get there, or maybe it's again a desire to hear about an experience we don't all have every day.  I can't quantify it, but I sense a deeper sense of engagement and benefit of the doubt in those situations than I get from an audience who already knows me, or knows that I came from just a little further down their own street.

Of course, we have to be careful about assigning too much inherent value to someone's words or thoughts just because they are not from around here.  (Certainly from one perspective, it might be worth being additionally skeptical of their insights if they're not connected to the values and culture established in our own land.)  I cringe sometimes when I hear of local groups paying significant amounts of money to bring in an expert speaker on a given topic, where part of the primary appeal is that they are from another place with different perspectives, not that they will actually provide $10,000 worth of value in their visit.

Generally, though, I think it's a good thing that we still find some exhileration in encountering "the other, unlike us" and that we look to those experiences for insight and perspective on our own lives.  In some ways, having traveled or been on other kinds of journeys does give us a wisdom and expertise that we can't obtain otherwise, and it's a great part of the human tradition to share in that with each other.

2 thoughts on “The role of travel in establishing expertise

  1. Jesus takes the cake for Traveling Expert. Folks are still swooning today over his slide-show...


  2. Another possibility: The cost of travel sends a signal that its purpose was valuable. As the cost of travel goes down, you have to travel further to get the same oomph.

    Of course cultural homogenization has increased as transportation costs have declined (due to lowered communication costs, as you noted), so it might be difficult to empirically test these hypotheses against each other. Maybe check speaking fees (including travel) of those from anglophone and Western locales versus places that are more culturally different but about the same distance?

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