May 8, 2018

On culture and human relationships

This is a recollection of some of my experiences as I started living in the western part of Canada. I especially want to write down my thoughts on how people relate to each other in the different places I have lived.

Sometimes people ask me what I miss the most about my birth place, and without a doubt it is the way humans interact. In fact human interactions here still feel foreign to me.

One of the most surprising things to me when I first rode Calgary’s transit system was the silence, and to this day I still think it is remarkable that a group of human beings manage to stay quite for a good period of time. In some parts of the world, the sounds of chatter and the blasting radio would fill the bus. Being from a different culture, I tried many times to break the norm and start conversations with fellow passengers but more often than not the response was apathetic at best. Eventually I gave up and did as I observed, that is, immersed myself in some reading, podcast, or whatever else would distract my attention. Though I did manage to strike a few spontaneous conversations that made my commute more enjoyable. I still find it strange that two people who routinely find themselves in a common place would choose not to interact with each other. Or, even worse, choose not to acknowledge each other. That is exactly what made transit very foreign to me- people actively choosing to avoid interactions.

Many months ago I read of a study that had crawled the “miss connections” section of craiglist.com for different cities in the United States and catalogued the most common locations for such events. Buses and trains made the list. I guess it makes sense especially for transit heavy cities (Seattle, San Francisco, NYC for example). Could it be that people want to connect to each other but they feel is not appropriate?

In Calgary, I once went to a house party that I was mildly interested in. I found myself bored after I had exhausted talking to everyone I knew at the party, and I decided to leave. On my drive home I started to wonder why it felt strange for me to drive home early from a party, it isn’t like I never attended boring parties before back home, so what was it? Well one of the things I quickly realized is that when I was in Quito I rarely drove to parties, not only that, if I did it was generally in a carpool with friends. Thus very frequently, when I felt bored at parties I had no alternative but to wait until everyone whom I came with felt ready to go. Sometimes this meant that I was stuck in a place I did not want to be. This however had the positive side effect that it pushed me to talk to people I did not know. But not only that, there was a good chance that other people were in the same situation making a chunk of the attendees pretty receptive to these type of encounters, many times turning a dull night into a memorable one.

I realized that night, as I drove alone, that resource limitations can lead to practices that strengthen communities. Further I believe the opposite is also true, that an abundance of resources makes it harder for people to connect and erodes our opportunities to create new relationships. I am not suggesting we should give up individual possessions and live in communes, but we should be suspicious of world views that preach society betterment through self-sufficiency and accumulation.

Finally I would like to describe a behavior, that has been hard for me to adapt to and to this day it still feels foreign. Many times in the past I have been introduced to new people in a social gathering, and after a meaningful interaction we both part ways. After a short period of time goes by and I encounter the same person somewhere else, it would be very likely that he or she will make no effort to acknowledge me, or worse actively avoid me. What is even more surprising is that this behavior will happen even with people that I have interacted with on multiple occasions. The first times I encountered this behavior I wondered if the person did not see or remember me. Many times I assumed he or she was intentionally avoiding a friendship with me, but I quickly realized that this was not necessarily the case. If I found them in a setting similar to the one in which we had met, most people behaved friendly towards me.

It took me several years to realize that people regulate their receptiveness to a social interaction based on the physical place they find themselves in. Incidentally this “regulation” is highly dependent on their mother culture. For example, back home, failing to approach a person that was introduced to me recently, regardless of where I found him or her, would be considered rude, as would arriving at a small gathering and not acknowledging everyone individually.

Why does it feel more out of place to start a conversation while waiting for the bus than at a conference? There is no single answer to that, as it depends on many things. What I keep wondering is if our reliance on self-reliance robs us of opportunities to develop meaningful connections.

© Esteban Ginez 2018