Thursday, April 17, 2014
A tire goes flat, a meeting starts: Defining a culture
I've come up with a little story that I hope demonstrates what I think is a fundamental difference between the cultures of Canada and Honduras. Here’s the scenario: A person is in a car going down the highway, headed for a morning meeting at 9 a.m. Just the day before, this person fixed their own flat tire, so happens to have a tire iron on the car floor. As they drive along, they pass another person broken down at the side of the road with their own flat tire.
What I think would happen in Canada: The driver passing by might consider stopping, but would check his or her watch and realize that would make them late for the meeting, and probably get them in trouble with their boss. The driver would also remember advice from somebody or other that no one should ever stop at the side of the road to help a random stranger. And besides, surely the person with the broken-down car would have BCAA or at the very least a cell phone to be able to call somebody else for help. So the passer-by would keep on driving, and the meeting would begin on time.
What I think would happen in Honduras: Not only would somebody stop to help, but probably three or four more would as well. They would emerge from their cars greeting each other and spend at least 10 minutes joking and talking about this or that. At least two people in the group would discover they were related. Meanwhile, one of the many people who sell tamales, fried-chicken dinners and fruit on the buses would notice a group starting to gather, and would come by to sell them food. They’d buy some, perch here and there along the roadside while sharing food and banter, and eventually they’d patch up the flat tire with whatever was handy and everybody would get on their way.
Were there anyone among them who had been on their way to a 9 a.m. meeting, that person would have arrived an hour or more late. But a lot of other people would have arrived almost that late to the meeting as well, so in fact he or she wasn’t really late at all. Sometime later, the meeting would get underway.
There’s good and bad to each scenario. If you’re the driver broken down at the side of the road, nothing could be better than a whole lot of people passing by who want to help, and damn that 9 a.m. meeting start time. But when people don’t arrive at meetings on time, things get sloppy in all kinds of ways. Honduras’s relaxed culture shows its dark side in all its failed systems and inability to control massive social problems. Got to be organized to make all that complex stuff work.
But there’s something profound lost as well among those who choose organization over human relations. Yes, they end up with one heck of a nice country due to all their collective striving, but there appears to be a kind of drawing inward that comes with cultural prosperity. We help each other in truly meaningful ways, like by paying our taxes and demanding accountable government, but on a day to day basis we're not exactly warm and friendly.
I feel like our lives are so much more isolated here in Canada. Clearly our cultural style works well for creating quality education and health care, a functioning justice system, great roads and economic stability, but I wonder now if one of the costs might be a loss of human connection.
I particularly feel it now when I’m in the car, having mostly been stuck with bus travel for the last two years. There was a lot about bus travel that I hated, but the one thing it gives you in a country like Honduras is lots of contact with other people. They’re going to be squeezing onto your seat, stumbling over you, bumping into you, spilling a plate of rice on you and trying to sell you things. I wouldn't want to suggest that much about bus travel in a developing country is fun at the time, but you certainly do get your full quota of human contact.
Transportation here is so much cleaner, quicker and less risky than it was in Honduras, but it feels so much lonelier. With our windows up and ours cars on the move, we zip around in our solitary little bubbles, in the midst of thousands of people and yet alone.
Of course, my Honduran acquaintances would love to have the problems I’m mentioning. Everyone driving around on beautifully maintained, wide roads in their own comfy cars, which they can afford because they’re paid a decent wage? Bring it on!
What they don’t yet know, though, is that when the day comes that their schools are good and they’re making a fair wage and their roads don’t suck and almost everybody’s got their own cars, they just might find themselves rushing off to a meeting one day without even thinking twice about helping somebody broken down at the side of the road.
Win some. Lose some.