Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Here is the next installment of my podcast. This episode is an attempt to compare the deep values of Spain and the United States. You can see the YouTube video here:

Here is the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-13-cultural-comparison/id1469809686?i=1000464935149

And here is the transcript:


Hello.

Yet another week has passed—this time of year always seems to go by so quickly—and there is nothing special to report from Madrid. According to the news from America, impeachment is a farce, the Iowa caucus is a farce, and we’re all going to die of coronavirus. Oh well. At least the weather in Madrid is unseasonably warm. Of course, that could be a concern, too, if you think too much about hot and sunny February days. But it’s best just to enjoy it while it lasts, I guess.

Today I wanted to try a higher-level cultural comparison between my two countries: Spain and the United States. Now, of course I am constantly comparing these two places on my podcast. That’s pretty much what I’m here to do. But a lot of cultural comparisons focus on details—diet, fashion, rituals, and so on. Culture goes a lot deeper than that, though. And if you want to really get to the heart of a cultural difference, you have to try to focus on these more fundamental values. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist from the Netherlands, developed perhaps the most famous framework for comparing cultures. Basically he breaks down a culture into six independent factors, and then tries to measure them.

While I don’t know how far I agree with his theory or his methodology, I think this is at least an interesting place to start when thinking about two different cultures. Specifically, I want to focus on what Hofstede calls “power distance.” This is basically the degree to which a society accepts a hierarchy as legitimate. In other words, you can think of it as the difference in respect granted to a boss or an employee, or a parent and a child. Now, according to the Hofstede consultancy website, Spain scores significantly higher than the United States in this regard, meaning that it is a less egalitarian culture. But I have doubts about this. Much of the data was collected in the 1970s and focused exclusively on IBM employees (Hofstede worked for IBM). A lot has changed since then.

Instead, I’m prepared to argue that the “power distance” in Spain nowadays is, on the whole, quite a bit lower than it is in the United States. A lot of little things lead me to this conclusion. One obvious clue is in the Spanish language itself. Spanish, in case you didn’t know, has two forms to say “you,” a casual version (tú) and a formal version (usted). However, in Spain the formal version is rarely used. Even when you meet a total stranger or you’re in a shop, it’s expected to use the casual . To be honest, I’ve used the usted form so rarely that I’m not even good at it. Now, this is not the case in many Latin American countries. And a few decades ago, it wasn’t the case in Spain either. The language itself has stopped encoded differences in respect.

Another striking piece of evidence of this is how teachers are addressed. In America teachers are called by their last name. So I would be Mr. Lotz. But in Spain, teachers are universally called by their first name. So here, I’m Roy. I’m not even Mr. Roy or Teacher Roy. Just “Roy” to my students. This isn’t just some curious fact. Believe me: the relationship between teachers and students is very different in Spain than in the United States. Growing up, I remember seeing my teachers are unquestionable authority figures, someone to disobey at your own risk. In Spain, students just don’t have this fear of teachers like I did. There’s a definite casualness in the relationship that can drive you crazy if you’re trying to quiet down a class.

Here’s another example from the classroom. (As a teacher, this is where most of my experience is.) In American high schools, there’s a definite hierarchy among the students. There is a continuum from cool, popular kids to uncool, unpopular kids. Think of any American movie about high school you’ve seen. Besides this, there are quite noticeable cliques or groups of students in any given American class. Certain people hang together. In a Spanish classroom, these factors are refreshingly absent. At least from my perspective, there is no definite hierarchy of popular to unpopular, and the students mix pretty freely. So most of the time you can randomly group students together without fearing any issue. 

But there are other signs of this cultural trait, too. One thing that’s striking for an American is how rarely Spanish people talk about their jobs. In America, it’s one of the first things we ask about a person. And we kind of assume that a person’s job defines them, at least partially. But in Spain people often don’t ask, and never seem to want to talk about their work very much. Now, again, I don’t think that this is just a curious fact. In America, your job defines your role in a grand hierarchy. This, I think, is one of the main reasons we want to know it: because our attitude changes if we are talking to a janitor or a lawyer, even if we’re not aware of it changing. If you’re an American listening, try to imagine knowing someone for weeks and weeks without knowing what their job was. Would that make you uncomfortable?

I also think that power distance is encoded into forms of politeness. Specifically, I think about the American tendency to say “please” and “thank you” rather obsessively. Spaniards say please and thank you, of course, but not nearly so often or in so many different situations. To me this is very telling. The words please and thank you are for making requests and receiving benefits. The fact that you have to say it implies that you are not owed anything by the other members of the group, and so every benefit you receive should be treated like a generous gift (even when it obviously isn’t). The funny thing about it is that you normally say please and thank you when you’re in a situation where there isn’t a lot of choice. For example, an American might say “thank you” when a worker in a restaurant fills up their glass with water, but of course if that worker didn’t do so in a timely fashion, they might get fired. Similarly, you say “please” when ordering in a restaurant, but not when asking your friend to pass you a beer.

My point is that these words, far from indicating a situation with equal power, are most often used when there is unequal power—such as a boss telling a worker what to do, or ordering in a restaurant, and so on. Please and thank you serve as a kind of respectful mask for unequal power distributions. This is why, in some cultures, inappropriately thanking someone can be seen as disrespectful. Even in Spain, if you impulsively thank your waiters in a restaurant for everything they do—take your order, give you a beer, serve your food—then they might look at you funny. The attitude is that it’s their job and that’s it. You’re paying for a service and receiving it.

And while I’m on the subject of Spanish restaurants, I think the attitude of waiters also illustrates an important difference. To be a waiter in many American restaurants, you need to be an actor as well as a server. Waiters are expected to smile and be chipper and pleasant. In Spain, there really isn’t nearly as much of a notion that waiters should take on this role so completely. And I think this applies to many jobs: even while they are working, Spanish people tend to treat their jobs as jobs, not as roles in a play. This, to me, signals an unwillingness to identify with their level in the hierarchy of status, maintaining their primary identity as independent of their temporary social role.

This, in short, is why I think Spain’s culture has a lower score on the “power distance” scale.

While I’m on the subject of these big cultural differences, I thought I would also mention another important way that cultures can differ: individualism vs communalism. As is often noted, the United States is highly individualistic. As a Western country, Spain is pretty individualistic, too, though significantly less I think. Here, again, I think that forms of politeness give us a clue. While saying thank you and your welcome are not as important as Spain as in the US, it is significantly more important to say hello and goodbye. Spaniards take greetings seriously. When you’re introduced to a group of people in the United States, you can just wave to everyone and say “hello.” But in Spain, you need to make your way around the circle.

Similarly, you have to say goodbye (technically, “see you later”) when you leave a space, even if you’re talking to perfect strangers. This applies to a lot of situations that strike Americans as strange. You walk into the staff room at school to pick up a pencil, and you have to say “hasta luego” as you leave. Or if you visit someone and leave their building, you say goodbye to the doorman. Or even if you’re in an elevator in a crowded office building, you say “hasta luego.” This strikes an American is really bizarre. But it makes sense in a more communal culture, where being together, in a group, is a strong value in itself.

You can even get a taste of this if you look at the two countries on Google Earth. Americans live alone in big houses, separated by wide spaces. Spaniards live all bunched up together in apartment buildings, even in rural areas they bunch together in a heap rather than spread out. You can drive for miles without seeing a sign of human habitation, and then all the sudden you can see a dense village. As an American, you naturally think: why don’t they spread out? But Spanish people love being together.

As a last cultural aspect to consider, there is what Hofstede calls “masculinity,” which I think is a bad name for a useful concept. This is (and I quote) “the degree to which a society will be driven by competition, achievement, and success.” You can just call this competitiveness rather than masculine, I think. In America, life is conceived of as a struggle of all against all, a universal rat race, a giant zero-sum game. Americans want to have high status, and there is only so much status to go around. Spanish culture is not nearly so competitive.

You can see this very clearly if you teach high school. In America, we separate students into tracks: normal, honors, and AP (advanced placement). Not only that, but students in American high schools must constantly scramble to accomplish as much as they can—get high grades, engage in extra-curriculars, sports, music, dance, theater, etc. Again, in America status depends on success, success depends on money, and money partly depends on education—and, of course, there are only a few coveted spots in elite universities. Spanish high schools are not like this at all. They don’t even have official sports teams that compete against those of other high schools. And in general getting into university has none of this rat race quality that it does in America. 

To me it’s obvious that all of these cultural qualities are interrelated: a culture that is more egalitarian will be more communal and less competitive, and vice versa. 

Well, this podcast has already gone on long enough. But I hope I at least gave you some food for thought about cultural differences. I wasn’t trying to argue that either one was better, by the way. In some cases it’s nice to have a low score on the power distance scale. But believe me, as a teacher, sometimes you wish there was more of a power distance between yourself and students. On the other hand, I think that the competition to get into good colleges is psychologically and socially unhealthy. So, pick your poison I guess. 

Thank you.

Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.


Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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