During a recent post-film Q&A, someone stood up and said:
“You said you received a lot of hospitality wherever you went, and that people were always happy to give you food and shelter, even those with very little to give.”
So far so good.
“But didn’t you feel like you were just taking advantage of people the whole time?”
Oh. A loaded question. Got you. Thank you very much for asking, madam.
The implicit question was: “You were just taking advantage of people the whole time. How can you justify that?”
Firstly, I could see exactly where the questioner was coming from. I think it’d be asked much more often if it wasn’t such a direct and possibly unreserved and impolite challenge to a fundamental element of this kind of journey.
(We’re British, remember? Polite and reserved is in our blood. At least, until we start writing comments on the Daily Telegraph website.)
But it’s also the kind of question that brings into sharp focus the way that bicycle travel can challenge preconceptions on a level so deep that you didn’t even realise that you were predisposed to think that way.
And that is what this question was really about: preconceptions of right and proper behaviour, and of the way in which we subconsciously interact with the world.
Luckily for me, up in front of a couple of hundred people, I’d been round and round in my head on this issue in the past and made peace with it. And so I was able to deliver with confidence the response: No, I did not remotely feel like I was taking advantage of people.
And I’d like to share and expand on why this is the case, because I think it has much broader relevance than in the context of receiving hospitality on a bike trip. There are a few key causes.
To begin with, it is absolutely true that bicycle travel often involves receiving regular, unconditional hospitality. The questioner is not mistaken here. It’s also true that this happens regardless of material wealth. In fact it’s been noted by many that there seems to be an inverse correlation between material wealth and generosity. (Perhaps this is because the materially impoverished have less to lose, and a stronger handle on the value of what they do possess.)
I think that one of the causes of discomfort is that in modern society we become accustomed to interacting with people in one of two ways.
The first is how we behave with friends, family and other ‘trusted’ associates. We let down our guard and our behaviour becomes (I hope) generous, helpful, unconditional and generally well-meaning.
The second is the way we interact with strangers; those outside of our trusted inner circle and with whom we’re not expecting to form any kind of lasting bond. We treat these people as players in the free market economy that dominates public life; if someone gives us something (products or services) it is because they are expecting something back (cash, or at least something tangible) in return. In a society that suffers from a general and indoctrinated fear of strangers, restricting interactions to economic exchanges eliminates much of this perceived risk. This is simplistic, of course, but it serves to illustrate how certain behaviours become ingrained.
We are very, very good at injecting our own subjective experience into the actions of others in order to make sense of their motivations. And I think one of the principal misunderstandings of the hospitality scenario is the way in which strangers are perceived to be motivated when they offer us hospitality.
It is almost always the case that they do not expect something in return. But we are predisposed to assume that they do — at least to begin with, hence the shock, surprise and revelation you’ll read about in countless bicycle travel blogs when we realise that they don’t. We eventually build up enough similar experience to see that there are huge numbers of people in the world whose brains are simply not wired up to perceive interactions with strangers as economic transactions in the way that we understand them.
Because this is so hardwired, we may respond to hearing stories of hospitality with surprise (that it happens) and guilt on behalf of the storyteller (that he or she did not appear to compensate the stranger). This leads to confusion, frustration, and on that particular day a needling question in front of a hall full of people.
Let me propose a couple of alternative ways of explaining the scenario; why I don’t feel that accepting it is to take advantage of anyone; and why I don’t feel there’s any need to ‘bring stuff to give back’, which is a related (and slightly irritating) assumption I occasionally hear feeding into people’s plans. One concept is simple enough; the other is a more fundamental shift in worldview.
Firstly, I would argue that by accepting hospitality you are very much giving something back; it’s just not something material or tangible. Personally — and I am sure that if you think about it hard enough you will feel the same way — when I have a guest to stay, I enjoy their company, their stories and the new perspectives and experiences they may bring. I enjoy having my routine enlivened by something new. My guest doesn’t have to be a close friend, nor to give me presents or money, in order for this to be true.
Viewed from the opposite point of view, as a guest in a stranger’s home you are giving the experience of hosting a guest simply by walking in through the front door. You may also, without realising it, be giving your host the opportunity to act according to a faith or cultural tradition which encourages unconditional hospitality. In any case, there is an exchange going on here; intangible, yet still of mutual benefit. And it has been demonstrated in numerous studies that people derive as much pleasure from giving as from receiving, whether that be material or not.
Secondly, I would argue that by feeling that you need to ‘give something back’ directly to your host in order to validate the exchange, you are perhaps subconsciously expressing a preference for individualism over collectivism. This is not a criticism, just an observation that should be taken into account: many people think primarily in terms of the greater good when making decisions; others are more self-centred.
When offering hospitality, many people may feel, again subconsciously, that by expressing goodwill towards a traveller who realistically cannot compensate them with anything more than good company, they are putting that goodwill into a kind of collective ‘pool’ which will manifest itself at some unknown point and place in the future.
This is horribly wishy-washy, I know, but in its simplest form, being given unconditional hospitality on a bike tour may inspire you to act in the same way towards travellers you encounter in the future when you have the opportunity to show them the same hospitality you once received. (This is a common theme among experienced bicycle travellers.)
That might extend to generally being kinder and more helpful in all walks of life, and thus the goodwill has, in the grand scheme of things, not just been paid back but multiplied. I think most of us would agree that if everyone in the world became just a tiny bit more kind, helpful and generous in their actions, the result would be an astronomical paradigm shift.
I am not proposing that this thought is what drives people directly to express hospitality towards cycle tourists, but I feel that it is a thought that resonates naturally with all of us — which might explain why it is a core concept in so many successful dogmatic belief systems.
For a far better summary of the concept than I have delivered here, see the film Pay It Forward. (Keep a sick bucket handy while you do so.)
There are exceptions. There are regions where compensation is generally expected in exchange for help, and there are occasions on which you’ll need to use a little common sense and intuition. But the general principle stands.
So while I absolutely do not feel that accepting the outpouring of hospitality is to take advantage of those who offer it, maybe that response should be appended with the caveat: “so long as I pay it forward”.
Like any discussion that involves challenging core values, beliefs and behaviours, this is a topic that has in the past been a source of heated discussion controversy. What do you think?