The Power of Redirected Negative Energy: A Lesson from Istanbul

People who regularly practice a martial art know that sometimes the greatest power for the positive is the redirection of the negative. People who regularly practice travel and human interaction know this, too.

This little story is case in point.

A man at a corner cafe off a side street in Instanbul’s Taksim neighborhood asked me to photograph him.

“Sure!”

I fired off a few shots, showed him the images in my camera’s display and he burst out laughing. We shook hands and had a moment, a friendly non-verbal moment. Then we waved goodbye.

Audrey and I continued our walk and crossed to the other side of the pedestrian lane to check out the lunch menu of a café selling çiğ köfte, our target snack of spiced raw meat.

“It’s expensive there, but if you go a couple streets away, it will be cheaper,” an older Turkish man standing nearby suggested.

We turned to him in agreement, “This seems expensive. Over by us, it’s three lire.”

He nodded in approval as if we’d passed some kind of test.

“Are you living here?” he asked.

“We are here for just a week, staying in an apartment down the hill.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

Before I could even finish the last syllable of my response, a young man standing next to him responded in reflex, “I don’t like America.”

Now stop for a moment and put yourself in my position. What would you do in this situation? How would you respond? (It doesn’t matter if you’re American, of course, just fill in your country’s name above.)

I responded immediately. “What matters right now is whether or not you like me,” I said smiling confidently, two thumbs pointing back at my chest. My timing was impeccable, my unintended deflection pitch perfect. The young man couldn’t deny it. He smiled and laughed, the ice was broken and the conversation reset.

I suppose I could have instead become defensive and asked, “Why don’t you like America?” But I don’t take that sort of bait.

I also understand that regardless of the young man’s outlook, I probably wasn’t going to change his mind. But maybe we could have a conversation.

And that we did.

“I don’t have any problem with the people. I just don’t like the politics,” he offered to clarify his emotion, his opening position.

“I don’t like the politics either,” I agreed.

Meanwhile, the older man looked a little uncomfortable, embarrassed, almost disappointed in his young friend’s approach. It wasn’t the most elegant or appropriate way to engage a visitor — after all, Turkish culture is big on hospitality. Or maybe something in his experience told him confrontation was unproductive.

In any event, he genuinely came to America’s defense: “America is a dreamland.”

“I’m not so sure about that. At least anymore,” I replied. “Have you been watching television?” (Occupy Wall Street was in full bloom around this time.)

The young man began complaining about increasing prices in Turkey.

“I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but we have that problem, too,” I suggested.

“There are no jobs here, especially for young people,” he continued.

Check. “We have that problem, too,” I commiserated.

As the conversation continued, it revolved around the problems our countries both have, the challenges we all share.

Similarities. Not differences. Dialogue.

We avoided a bitch session on America, which was where he was likely headed when the conversation first began.

Instead, it was a rather enlightening conversation for both of us about what life is like for ordinary people on the streets of Turkey and the United States.

The four of us probably spoke for another 15 minutes or so about Istanbul, food, our families, the world — and how “Switzerland was the best place to live in Europe.” (The older man again showed his non-confrontational bias.)

Then we came to a natural break in the conversation. We shook hands and let the men go about their day.

As is often the case, I wanted to make an impression, a different impression. The next time the young man thinks America, maybe just maybe a faint hint of me and Audrey — and his conversation with us — will creep in.

As we travel, I continually like to think that little actions can eventually make a big difference.

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Comments

  1. says

    Love this. We’re headed to Istanbul next month and have had similar conversations on our travels to other countries. It’s so easy to respond defensively. While I don’t always like our politics, I still think the US is one of the greatest countries in the world. I very much like your reply and will try to keep it in mind if confronted with the same.

  2. says

    I love the fact that you two are such great ambassadors of the United States!

    When I was in Oaxaca a couple of months ago, I met a woman whose mother watched a lot of TV shows from the U.S. (mostly CNN and crime dramas). She sincerely believed that the U.S. was full of drug dealers/addicts, murderers, gang members, and violent people who wouldn’t hesitate to pull a gun on other people.

    It’s so wonderful that travel can break down stereotypes held by both the traveler and the residents of that particular country.

  3. Sutapa says

    Agree with Kathy! You guys are such natural ambassadors of the US. Too bad you guys aren’t noticed by the State Department.

    Such a great piece! Dan did exactly the right thing, in deflecting the criticism. And for sure, the young guy will remember him for years to come.

  4. Sutapa says

    Anyone who visits another country and interacts with the people, becomes an ambassador. I remember in the 1970s when I was a teenager, my uncle (father’s brother) visited with his new American wife and came to stay at our house. My impressions of America were crystallized from that homestay of theirs.

    I know I read magazines and listened to the radio (no TV until I left India, at least in Jamshedpur), but my impressions were from my aunt. It wasn’t a good impression because she was not very flexible. The mosquitos made her cry, her lack of language skills made her cry, the food made her cry. I guess she wasn’t a seasoned traveller or very sophisticated either culturally, but I would not have known that, then. My other impression was also of the immense wealth of Americans. In the 1960s and 70s, the US accounted for 50% or more of world GDP.

    Another impression was that at least then, Americans thought they were owed everything, including all comforts even in India.

    But anyway, having lived in the US for 30 years now, I guess I have a more nuanced view and have probably become one of those dreaded Americans myself.

  5. says

    Beautiful story. Having moments like this is exactly why I would like to travel. But no matter how hard I try to deny it in my mind, my only response to the young guy would have been, “why don’t you like “? I really have to learn how to redirect the negative. Kudos Dan.

  6. says

    I never would’ve thought to handle it that way, that’s really awesome. I’ve met people on the road who’ve said they don’t like America and people who seem so excited when I say that’s where I’m from, but overall most seem to separate the US and its government from the individuals they meet. Always refreshing.

  7. says

    I think my initial reaction to his comment would have been “Yes, there are things I don’t like about America too.” Maybe that would have led to a bashing America conversation. However, I liked you handled this. Make the conversation about the people and not the politics or country. We are travelers and citizens of the world and I think we can always find some common ground there.

  8. Barbara says

    I am very impressed with your handling of that sticky situation. I understand that we are viewed as a country first but with great ambassadors such as yourself we maybe can get past this and deal as people! Well done. Safe travels

  9. says

    It was a very diplomatic way to get out of a potential conflict, but how to negative energies factor into this? Personally I don’t believe in energies of any kind (except for the ones that physics can explain), and it seems to be that what this man directed at you were not negative energies, but simply a stereotype of Americans being evil (or almost), which is common in many countries.

  10. says

    What a great little story! Perhaps a less seasoned traveler would have taken the bait. Glad you all didn’t and turned it into a positive interaction, for everyone involved. My hunch is that the young man will definitely reflect on that convo next time he considers America and Americans.

  11. says

    The thing is that if you haven’t lived in places like Turkey or many others not so rich countries you cannot really know the difference. I live in Macedonia, which is not a rich country and i have been to USA twice and i have to say that it is like in a different planet. Maybe cause i ve been to Virginia i have that impression, but there are even better places there. It is different when you get 4000 USD per month, and you get 300 USD per month and you have the same prices in everything, and way higher prices of gas. You can do the math and see that it is different. That is why US is a dreamland :)Most of the people barely make it for living… going on vacation is a dream.

  12. says

    @Kristina: Honestly, my reply was not planned. It just came out that way. Having said that, Audrey and I have both played bull in the ring many times when confronted with reactions to American policy — as travelers and when we lived in Prague for 5 years.

    Another piece that might be of interest is our Travelers as Citizen Diplomats:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/02/travelers-as-diplomats/

    @Kathy: That is so true and believable. Especially in Latin America, English-language channels out of the U.S. portray the U.S. as a pit of violent despair.

    Am glad you like our ambassadorship. I know we’re not alone. There are a lot of decent American travelers out there putting their best foot forward in all their interactions.

    @Shey: Thank you!

    @Sutapa: If we worked for the State Department, it probably wouldn’t (couldn’t) be the same. I hope you’re right about that young guy in Istanbul. I secretly hope that he remembers me forever.

    Your story of the homestay drives home the idea of first impressions. So true.

    Regarding the U.S. and world GDP, that is certainly evolving.

    “Nuanced” — I love that word. I think we all could use a good dose of nuanced.

    @Kiran: Thanks. I think we all have it in us to something a little different. If not right now, someday.

    By the way, I’m not impervious to responding unproductively to aggressive behavior. Sometimes it just turns out right, as in this case.

    @Ali: So true, most people we’ve met are able to separate us and our actions from the government, where we’re from. Refreshing indeed.

    @Jeremy: The funny thing is that the conversation made the young guy talk about Turkey. That wasn’t my goal. I guess frustrations often find a way back inward.

    There’s always common ground. It’s just a matter of finding it.

    @Barbara: Thank you on all accounts. Let’s hope the next similar situation we’re faced with turns out as well.

    I’m with you: alter the discourse, move ahead.

    @BA: Surely the man I was speaking to was either holding or exhausting negative mental energy. Think of it as the intellectual equivalent of having a punch thrown at you. Many ways to react, including ones in which you use the assailant’s energy against him. My aim here wasn’t against the guy who was angry with America per se, but the principle is quite similar.

    If stereotypes are expressed as negatively as this one was, they qualify as negative energy in my book. Seeing the young man’s expression may have helped.

    @Claire: I’m not even certain it’s a matter of being seasoned or not. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of timing, circumstances, etc.

    We’re confronted with this sort of thing fairly often. However, I never realized how refreshing it could be to deal with it in this sort of way.

    As for whether or not the young guy will reflect on all this in the future, I’ll probably never know. But what I did only helped. Thats’ for certain.

    @T: I can’t know for certain what it’s like to like in Turkey because I haven’t. But I have lived overseas (Czech Republic and short stints in Germany, China, Argentina, Guatemala, Thailand, Mexico) and have had enough experiences and conversations through my travels that my understanding is greater than that of a typical visitor just passing through.

    I can imagine that the U.S. may feel like a different planet than Macedonia (I don’t know Macedonia first hand, but one of these days I hope to.) But realize that what you believe you see during your visits to the U.S. may not be the full picture either. There are 300+ million people in the U.S. and not all of them are making $4000/month. Some more, some less. Outside of that, I can tell you from experience that one’s salary means much less than one’s buying power. By the way, have you read the latest statistics that show 50%+ of Americans now live in poverty? You can argue with the number (after all, it comes from a media that exaggerates everything) and what it means, but I suspect many of those folks would take issue with the term “dreamland”.

    I don’t intend to pick a fight, but I do intend to say that the story is often a lot more complicated that we passers-by often give credit.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking comment.

  13. Sharon says

    Really enjoyed reading this post and learned a lot from it. While I’ve never encountered anyone expressing their dislike for America (they are usually more interested in where I’m “really” from – I’m Asian) , I’ve always wondered what the right response would be should anyone ever say something like that, whether about America or another country

  14. says

    @Sharon: Thank you for your comment. Am glad you found our story useful. We don’t encounter this (negativity regarding America, directed at us) very often. In most cases, people engage us as individuals.

    Regarding a “right” response, it’s hard to say. I’m not sure there is one. I think it depends on the situation. In most cases, people just hope to be listened to or to be heard. I suppose my approach is to view the conversation like a vehicle and ask myself, “Now where would I like this to go?” or “What would I like to avoid.” Then I attempt to help steer the conversation accordingly.

    Your final thought above reminds of an email from another reader who suggested that this approach be used regardless of which country is being criticized.

  15. says

    Love this! And love the approach.

    We’ve, thankfully, had an easier time the last few years, but – during the Bush years – we encountered some brutal remarks on the road. We’d always say “WE are not our president!”

  16. says

    @Kent: I hear you. We were living in Prague at the time. Anti-American (or rather America-skeptical) sentiment was high. We played bull-in-the-ring quite a bit. Was fine doing that, particularly since it allowed me to put some distance between myself and American policy at the time.

  17. Ruth H. says

    Thank you for reminding us all of the power of positive thinking and actions. Your story is inspiring to those of us who lament the negative stereotypes that accompany American (or, let’s face it, just about any) politics, ideals, and personalities. It’s incredible how asking the right question (with a smile, no less) can change the entire flavor of a conversation with a stranger. Thanks again for your story! I hope to see similar dialogues in the future. Do you travel and blog frequently?

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