Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Judging National Culture

As I travel from one country to another, I try to respect all elements of national culture without judging them. Sometimes I fail.

Case in point. A couple of days ago, I had to wait in a long queue of anxious travelers checking in for an Alitalia flight from Rome to Paris. The airline was short on help and there was an intermittent problem with the luggage belt making the process slower than usual. As a result, the waiting travelers were a bit restless.

I think it is fair to say that, in the UK for example, you gain social prestige by demonstrating kindly manners and consideration for others. Etiquette implies a honed sense of civility. In Italy, however, prestige accrues to he who demonstrates the ability to gain advantage in the unending stream of social interactions. “Winning” implies highly developed skills and, perhaps, intelligence.

So in this queue of anxious Italian travelers, I witnessed several demonstrations of passengers jockeying shamelessly for better position at the expense of their fellow travelers. Their techniques ranged from sly to bold, from passive to aggressive, and from sophomoric to sophisticated. I also saw some fairly impressive defensive maneuvers designed to hold position without accruing any gain.

The point is this. The whole experience was extremely stressful.

Rather than merely exercising patience, it was incumbent on each of us to stay alert and engage in ongoing indirect confrontation without betraying the guise of social decorum. I can tell you from experience that when waiting in a similar queue in a culture that values social etiquette, such a situation would yield a bonding experience among the travelers. Missing a flight would be disruptive but the negativity of the experience would be muted by the empathy of those who shared it with you.

I argue that, in this way, national culture can have a profound impact on quality of life and, though I love the Italians and enjoy the time I spend there, this is an area where their culture encumbers an otherwise highly enjoyable lifestyle.


  1. Anonymous6/16/2009

    Where do you put us in the USA? Somewhere in the middle? More Italian? or is it regionally based-- i.e. the midwesterner is probably different than the Northeasterner...
    But Zen would say...just let it be.

  2. As a former British colony, we are much closer to the UK end of this particular spectrum in attitude, but not quite as polished as our forefathers in terms of how we handle ourselves.

    Zen doesn't actually "say" anything.

  3. Anonymous6/21/2009

    The Chinese would out-maneuver those Italians in a queue any day of the week ! Sharpest elbows in the world ? -- any 5 foot tall grandmother from Sichuan !