Thursday, June 7, 2007

Culture Shock

I wasn't out of the country for very long, in the grand scheme of things. Three months is not much time, yet I am experiencing some culture shock nonetheless.

At the Newtonville Whole Foods last night, my mother and I were lingering over the sushi case, carefully evaluating each possibility and deciding which colorful delicacies we'd have for dinner. I was not shocked by the sushi (even though I hadn't eaten any for 90+ days) but by the fact that two other customers waited for us to make our choices before selecting their dinners. Neither of them reached across us, asked us to move over, or otherwise exhibited any sign of impatience.

What is wrong with these people? I wondered. Aren't they hungry? Aren't they in a hurry?

After spending time in Israel and Italy, the politeness of the Whole Foods customers came across as docility and made me realize just how powerful our socialization is. For many, maintaining lines, order and a sense of fairness are practically sacred, and people get very upset when these rules are violated, when someone behaves unpredictably. We are taught to "wait our turn" and "be patient", and that doing so makes us "good" or "civilized" people, vs. the "bad" people who cut in lines, honk their horns and are impatient. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that we don't even question the meanings we automatically assign to our own and others' behavior until we have an opportunity to step away and gain some perspective.

Although I never quite got used to the more assertive behavior in Israeli "lines" (actually, throngs), and it often drove me up the wall, at least the people were visibly pulsating with life, desire, anger, irritation. Emotions were on display and there was electricity in the air. It was a theater of sorts, even if one didn't quite enjoy the play, didn't really understand the dialogue and didn't like being a supporting actress on occasion. The atmosphere in Italy was not as charged as in Israel but, even so, the pacing of transactions (say at a pasticceria) was fast; there were no lines, the customers who were served first were those who knew what they wanted and spoke up, even if they didn't arrive first.

Since I am still in traveler mode, and haven't yet developed a routine, perhaps I am feeling a bit judgmental about the civility here simply because it feels dull by comparison. Of course, over time, I will probably get used to it, expect it, and maybe even enjoy it. If not, I can always go to the Somerville Traffic Department to observe the spectacle of outraged residents trying to convince indifferent clerks that they shouldn't have to pay their tickets. It is great theater, and admission is free. You just need to stand in line.

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