It was the sight of a small university town that greeted me the day I first landed in the US. I noticed the big houses and the wide roads and the even bigger cars on my way to a student apartment where I was going to stay as a guest for a few days.
The next day, I took a bus to campus to do some admission paperwork. The buses, of course, were far less crowded than the ones I was used to in India. But the people, who were mostly young students, were also different in a fundamental way.
Many sat in the bus looking down at their books or course packs (smartphones were still a thing of the future). Some looked out the window. There were exceptions but mostly people avoided looking around at strangers. It was as though each person was cocooned in their own private universe as the bus moved wishing the rest of the bus away.
In commuter buses in India, people would be forced to stand or sit close enough to other people so they either had to look at a person’s face or hear them talk. There was hardly space to read in short-distance buses.
Our student apartments were small. But one day, I visited a friend’s professor’s house. I was astounded.
Perhaps because I was used to structures on a smaller scale, I saw what I thought was a gargantuan house but which the host assured me was of moderate proportions, with a swimming pool and two living rooms and multiple bedrooms.
The house was so huge that if you were in the kitchen, you wouldn’t know if there was anyone in the bedrooms. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chucky came up the endless steep steps of the basement that seemed to go straight down to Hades.
That was then.
Familiarity with the US has led me to a sense of normalcy now towards big structures. I no longer expect creatures of Greek or American mythology to greet me in such modern-day palaces.
The professor had teenage sons. They came out once to meet us and then disappeared into their rooms. The rooms were at the end of a long corridor and the doors were thick. Hardly a sound emerged from their rooms. You would never know what those young boys were doing inside.
In India, some children from a comparable strata of society would certainly have their own rooms, but most didn’t. They lived with siblings or grandparents or an ailing relative. Even those who had a room would have a barrage of servants passing through their rooms, or sweeping floors or carrying water or having loud bells announce the newspaper man or milk man or the person coming by to ask for money for the local festival. So few could lay complete claim to privacy in their own rooms even if they officially had a room.
Besides, I was familiar with the sentiment in India that if you could afford it, you could get your own study-table rather than sharing it with a sibling.
But here, you got your own swimming pool if you did not want the neighbours’ kids in it.
Even if you could not swim.
Of course, as time passed, I saw the expansion of this sentiment regarding privacy in dimensions that I hadn’t imagined before.
Making a journey? Why travel on the train where there are other people? Get a car preferably as large as a caravan.
Like the ocean? Get your own (I mean private beach but I’m sure there are people who have aspired to one or more of the extant oceans of the world.)
On a closer look, I realized that such sentiments were not necessarily American per se but could be described more as an American frame of mind that affluent people in other parts of the globe and immigrants in America adopted faster than those who may have first practised this kind of privacy. If anything, well-to-do immigrants jumped on the bandwagon faster in order to partake of what they considered the American dream.
Anyway, such huge spaces gave me the impression that Americans were a more private lot than comparable Indians in an Indian city.
In those early days in the US I noticed another difference amongst young people on campuses in the US as compared to those in the India I knew then. (India, of course, has changed very fast in the last couple of years. Ironically, it houses the world’s most expensive private home now designed by American architects :))
In the US, students in the cafeteria rarely sat in huge groups just chatting or spending time with one another. Unless they were doing group work, it was always two people, mostly boyfriend and girlfriend, or two girlfriends walking around. Socializing was supposed to happen at parties designated for the purpose, as it were, not randomly, anywhere.
This was a sharp contrast to the groups of students sitting in college canteens I knew in India, debating issues, aimlessly chatting, even drumming on wooden tables and singing for hours on end. If they wanted to schedule a party, they couldn’t do it at home with parents and many others present. Therefore fewer spaces were designated for parties and yet the socializing was everywhere.
On the surface of it, it seems that privacy is elusive where space is scarce.
“I want my own space,” is certainly a product of an affluent culture. There are rich Indians just as there are poor Americans, but a culture needs a lot of people to produce it and get people immersed in it. In that sense, a desire for “my space” would seem to be an American way of life practised by others too across the globe, especially in richer families with fewer kids.
In India, admittedly, lack of space is only one of the factors why people are in each other’s business.
Which would make it seem at first glance that privacy is elusive to Indians. And that Americans who are used to space would be more private.
And yet, I’ve (over)heard about more complications in people’s love lives travelling in buses in America than I have in many years of comparable bus rides in India. I’ve been to parties where Americans have revealed things as private as depression medication that they are taking to a casual acquaintances they just met–something quite unthinkable in middle-class India. I’ve seen memoirs and books and even student papers about events that “reveal all”–more than I’ve ever wanted to know.
There is almost an innocence, a lack of guile and an inability to handle privacy here.
And that would seem to counter my initial impression of Americans as private people.
In India, I’ve seen privacy that’s not immediately recognizable as such by people not used to social mores. There is a lexicon, so to speak, code language in which people speak about private matters in public spaces that you wouldn’t know if you were not plugged into the culture.
It’s hard to generalize but I’ve known more than one of the following kinds of Indians. If they ran into an aunt at a movie theatre (who was in everybody’s business) and their boyfriend happened to be there, they’d say he was a “friend.” Now, since quotation marks are invisible in daily conversation, it’s always been hard for me to determine the exact meaning of that term. If an on-line date happened to be visiting, they might go to the extent of saying the person was a “cousin.”
Of course, not always or in every case but these occurrences are common enough to make one seem that this is an elaborate cultural mechanism people have developed to compensate for lack of space. Something I misunderstood earlier as hypocrisy.
It is as though, because of lack of real space both physical and mental, people carry around a shield protecting their privacy everywhere so that two sisters-in-law living in the same house don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
As I’ve been thinking through this issue of privacy and space, I’ve been feeling quite guilty about using so many generalizations about two cultures that are as complex as life itself. And yet, I’m not a great enough writer to be able to compare without some generalizations. So I admit I’ve generalized but I hope readers might appreciate the essence of my point where the intent has not been to stereotype.
You might wonder why I’m thinking of all this today at all. That’s because I was thinking of my own writing.
In response to my post a few days back asking for feedback on the blog, several readers suggested that they would like to see more of me in my posts. More emotion, more details by which I supposed less of third person generalizations and more familiarity with me as a person. That is what got me thinking about privacy and writing.
Are there cultural conditionings that enter into our writing regarding privacy?
Each of us is different but is there an invisible hand that controls or guides us regarding how much of our private lives we allow to be revealed in our writing?
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71 thoughts on “Privacy: The Indian and the American frames of mind”
The concepts of Privacy and Personal Space do not exist in India.
Actually they can, but only for the very rich, and the culture is not geared that way. Privacy and Personal Space however, are also Western concepts and common in all Western or developed nations, less common in others. Neither approach should be taken to extreme.
I believe that most cultures fall somewhere between the two kinds: individualistic and communitarian.
Most Western cultures are predominantly individualistic, they emphasize entrepreneurship, independent choice (as to one’s political, religious, and personal choices) independent thought, initiative, and also pursuit of individual happiness.
On the other hand, communitarian cultures may find all of the above as evil, misanthropic, selfish, self-centred, “anti-family” etc.
I suppose these two worldviews will always be at war. However, I also believe that it is the individualistic culture that has given Western countries a great edge in the fields of arts, literature, philosophy, science and technology.
Whenever humans take risks, leave comforts of groups and family, streak out on their own, they will often find things that are new, unexpected and worthwhile.
However, to many, the lure, security and obligation of community and family far outweight the rewards of individualism. Hmmmmm…..
Having spent many years living in India and four African countries I would just make the point that it is all too common for the error to be made which equates ‘Western’ with American. There are certainly ‘Western’ attitudes, but the ‘West’ is not a homogenous entity and the United States has its own particularities which makes it utterly unlike many other Western nations.
Everything seems done to ‘excess’ in the US, whether it is individualism or diet. There is a far greater balance to life in probably every other Western nation so the US cannot be taken as an example of Western, but only as an example of itself. Probably any other Western nation is a better general comparison.
It is also a common error, and one I frequently encountered living in India, that Western means individualistic and not communitarian. There is an attitude in India and many African countries actually, that they are more family oriented than Westerners. This is patently untrue. The difference between the two is that in India and Africa there is no choice but to have extended family living together and this is mistaken for greater concern and care for family (although mistreatment is as common in India and Africa as anywhere else) when in fact it is simply practicality.
In the West extended families do not need to live together but, in my experience, having lived in England, Europe, Australia, Canada and the US the commitment to family and care and concern for family is as great as you will find anywhere.
Having lived in non-western countries for so long I would say that what gives the West an advantage is in fact a ‘communal’ view of life which is not found in India or Africa – the places of which I have personal experience.
What makes Western civilization different, and I believe more effective, is that there is a concept of accountability and responsibility to the community as a whole. This varies in degree through nations and the US would be at the lower level and Europe and other Western nations at the higher level. In other words, people function from a perspective which takes into account the value and importance of the community – of everyone.
My experiences in India and Africa are that people function from a perspective which takes into account Self, family, extended community, religion and rarely the greater society as a whole. In other words, there is cohesion in the West which enables greater harmony and function in the nation as a whole.
The other thing which holds back non-Western nations is they tend to be patriarchal and misogynistic. Research shows that where women are educated then society advances quickly and productively. In addition, patriarchy encourages a system where a male will be head of the family and in whom all power rests. This means in a family of say 20 people, only one, the head of the family, will have the power to make decisions or perhaps offer knowledge. In Western families on the other hand, all 20 people, as adults, will contribute and this will make for more effective and sound decision making.
But it needs to be remembered that this cohesion, or approach, is historically recent even in the West and a few centuries back what we call Western did not exist. In other words, what we find in non-Western nations today existed in all nations a few centuries ago.
And there is no need for either/or because ‘and’ works perfectly well. while the US may have taken ‘western’ concepts of individualism to an extreme, most of the rest of the Western world has not. You can have it all and in fact the most functional societies allow great individual freedom but demand consideration of and accountability for, the greater community – for society as a whole.
Cheers for your exhaustive views and analyses. But I need to clarify my position as you may have got the wrong end of the stick as far as my views are concerned.
I must uderline that when I say “communitarianism” I mean intellectual, political, ideological and “ethnocentric” communitarianism. An individual (a woman, for example) in most Eastern cultures is not allowed to step outside of this kind of communitarianism. There is restricted freedom to dissent, disagree and make individual choices.
Now, let’s take a look at Western communitarianism. Of course, most Western societies (the United States being–mostly– an exception, as you note) are intensely communitarian, for example Western Europe and Scandinavia. Probably nothing expresses their communitarinism better than their high taxation! People are ready to pay high taxes so that the disadvantaged in the society are taken care of.
But in addition to the above mentioned communitarianism, in Western countries, the principles of liberal democracy prevail which means that despite a strong sense of civic and social responsibility individuals are free to make their personal decisions: choosing their own religious and ideological beliefs, political opinions, choosing their sexual and life partners that may run contrary to the preferences of the majority or their family. This kind of individual freedom in the Western world has liberated human potential, including that of women, as you notice.
The family relations in Western countries also exhibit the same individualism. Of course, it would be absurd to say that Indian, Chinese or Vietnamese parents love their children more than British, American or German parents. But, in Western countries, emphasis on individualism means that children, as soon as they enter their teens, naturally enjoy a lot more freedom to make their own choices compared to their counterparts in eastern countries. Parents encourage them to lead their own life. In most Western European countries children move out of the house by the time they are in their late teens or early twenties. More importantly, they also begin to experience cohabitation with members of opposite sex.
If you have lived in Eastern countries you would know that this cohabitation through personal choice that is taken for granted in Western countries will get one’s head cut off in many Eastern countries. The reason is the Communitarianism that seeks to control every part of an individual’s life, including their sex life.
Sadly, even when some people from Eastern cultures move to Western countries they strictly impose their communitarianism, tribalism, ethnocentrism on their children. Hence, you hear stories of “honor killings” even for children born and bred in the UK, the United States and Canada.
In summation, when I mention Eastern communitarianism, I am referring to the dark side of communitarianism.
I think we are on the same page Rajiv and I was only seeking to clarify, as you have done, which is always worthwhile.
I really liked your post. It sums it all up so beautifully. I came to Sao Paulo a few years back and had the exact same experience. Brazilians by nature are very different from Indians and yet so similar. Allow me to explain. They like to know about you, your culture, how ‘exotic’ everything is and equally open about their own. Yet when it comes to talking about ‘real’ things, personal issues, they are so similar to us. They hold their family matters close to their heart and seldom share it with even their closest friends. But. You’ll be shocked when you hear them talking about certain subjects. Women chatter merrily about menstrual cramps during office meeting, men talk about their wive’s latest boob jobs. It’s difficult to put your mind around it! Anyways….just wanted to say…your writing is perfect!
In terms of writing and the personal self — it’s personality as much as culture, don’t you think? Some people can only express the truth inside themselves in terms of the gory (so to speak) details of their personal lives, other people do it best by reflecting what they observe on the outside. I’m probably the second, I get the impression from many of your posts that you are. too.
But I don’t think you hide yourself. If the reader pays attention, they can read you in your writing. Maybe paying attention is another difference between Americans and Indians (and I was born here in the States, I can say things like that 🙂 )
I’m a bit curious as to when the college example occurred and what size college/university was involved, in part because my experience was the opposite.
At a small, private, liberal arts school in the late-90s, most of the cafeteria tables were filled with chatting groups during every dinner and most of the lunches (the latter depended more heavily on class schedules), with tables of 1-4 people being a minority. I wonder, now, how much of that was us being somewhat isolated (the town’s population increased significantly when the college was in session and there were corn/soy fields literally ten feet outside the town line).
This was a large public university (one of the largest in the US) in a university town as far away from any kind of farmland that you can imagine. I was mostly talking about lunchtime.
I think you made a good point–it’s possible that my experience is specific to the college contexts I mention in both countries coloured by my perception of course. The Indian college I referred to is that of a specific kind with only arts and science departments–not Engineering. The Engineering schools would probably have a more goal-oriented ambiance about them. Again, my limited perception.
I was just curious, as I am about many college experiences. As a grad student, I wondered what attending the state university as an undergrad would have been like (in general, what I observed seemed to mirror your experience, but that’s based on limited observation). Now I live in a city where the state university in a small city unto itself, a very different experience.
This post made me laugh because I was just reflecting this morning about riding the bus in Israel (or even in the U.S., but with lots of Israelis or maybe Jewish Persians aboard). It is considered perfectly acceptable for fellow passengers to ask intrusive questions and offer completely unsolicited advice about your parenting, your dress, etc.
Are you riding the bus because your car is in the shop? Here, take this business card! My cousin runs this auto repair shop.
Your baby’s eye is goopy! Tea bags, that’s what you need! Place them on the eyelid when cooled.
Why are you wearing that shirt? That color is no good on you. You’d do much better with a soft rose or perhaps plum.
To Americans, it’s completely in your face and overwhelming. To Israelis, it’s love. “I care about you,” is what they mean. “We’re all in it together.”
That is most hilarious!
I love this post, and your incisive writing. Especially your seemingly paradoxical observation that while Americans seem to need lots of private (and privately owned) space, they often don’t seem to be able to “handle” privacy, and “share” the most personal and intimate information with utter strangers at the drop of a hat. A little while ago I wrote a story on the subject of personal space that you might like to read: http://josna.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/117-personal-space-indian-style/
Looking forward to reading more from bottledworder!
That’s a great way to summarize this post. Looking forward to following your link.
This post treats a topic that’s so remarkably similar. Yet the treatment is different. Enjoyed your post greatly (both content and style). Thanks!
Hi, I just wanted to let you know I’m passing the Versatile Blogger Award on to you. Here’s the link to the post where I blogged about it: http://gwenbristol.com/2013/01/13/698/
Thanks for a really great blog!
I think you are a very talented and interesting writer. I enjoyed your posts so much that I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Here is the link to the post I made on my blog about it: http://legendsofwindemere.com/2013/01/12/the-versatile-blogger-award/
Head’s up. I think you’re blog is pretty awesome. I’ve nominated your for The Versatile Blogger award. Check it out. Here’s my link: http://dlfwriting.com/2013/01/12/the-versatile-blogger-award/
I’m a private person, but a writer and blogger, and this seems to be a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the more private we feel ourselves to be, the more we need to commit ideas to paper in order not to become complete hermits. In fact, when I was a young girl, I aspired to hermitage. I read that in an old journal I kept, and was amazed that I had once felt that way. So, the question is, are we more private and isolated in response to having had to live communally (I had to share a room with my sister and I hated it- contrary to popular global belief, there are many Americans who do not live in big houses, or who grew up in them), or are we that way because we did grow up with our own private spaces? Sometimes I envy big, extended families, but most of the time I know I would hate so many presences and voices in my life. I come from a family of fierce individualists, and I think that developed from the Yankee fortitude of settling and conquering the isolation of huge, untamed forests, barren deserts, and lonely prairies. As we built the suburbs, we were torn between wanting privacy, hence the advent of the garage that opens and closes and that’s the last you ever see of your neighbor until they leave for work in the morning, and the wish to have a porch and a yard, where you can get to know the people who live on your street. Later came the technology that allowed access to other communities. Good post!
Yes, there’s a dilemma here. It’s the same with the present generation of Indians who are torn between individualism and the traditional structures.
Thanks for sharing your impressions. I sometimes think we confuse isolation with privacy. Some people might be rich in physical space but poor in knowing how to share it and themselves with others. And some talk and “share” all the time, but don’t reveal much about themselves.
Human nature is so complex and fascinating!
One’s culture certainly affect how one behaves, with or without one’s own awareness, as cultural influence can be very subtle.
In writing blogs, however, writing may not be the sole element why some people are more private than others. I feel that blogging is like dating — it’s a presentation of what and how much a person wants another person to know. The blogger chooses what to write and how he/she may want to impress and inform. Blogging is not a private business — if someone wants total privacy, they could write their diary at home with a pen. As blogging is a shared platform, ultimately a blogger can make a conscious decision how private or open he/she wants to be or wants to create, based on his/her cultural background, and equally importantly, his/her personality (introvert, extrovert, serious, closed, thoughtful, friendly……), writing aims (to connect, to make friends, to seek medical and emotional support……) and writing styles.
There also seems to be a trend that blogging has been used as a platform to ‘bare-all’. Freshly Pressed particularly loves this type of raw, powerful, emotional and writing and there has been an outpouring of emotions towards ‘brave’ bloggers. The existence of highly praised writing of certain ‘genre’ by Freshly Pressed may have encouraged more people to emulate this type of writing — more open, more emotions; less private, less remote — from bloggers of all cultures.
True. Another point to note is that sometimes “bare all” can also be a conscious, part-fictional mode of creation, especially if that’s what’s valued by the genre as you say. . .
Great post. After living in Japan and marrying a British man I’ve spent a lot of time contrasting my own experiences with what privacy is in the USA with that of other cultures. American’s are interesting in that we both want more space and “privacy” and at the same time will talk about very private things in public spaces. The Japanese and British both seem to value privacy much more and would not talk about such things in public. Thanks for your post.
I think that each of us has set a “line in the sand” when it comes to how much of our personal lives we are willing to reveal in our writings. It is and individual decision and even that line may move depending upon the topic of the posting.
Wonderful andd thoughtful write.
Well said. One of the problems with the internet is that people fail to ‘draw a line’ or take into account that they are in essence ‘publishing’ every time that they write and that means their words are no longer private and can be shared by anyone, anywhere. If you are not happy to have that happen then you don’t put the words on ‘paper’ or in print.
Thanks for this post. I’m a new reader of your blog and really enjoying it so far. I think you have to be very careful when you write anything online. I never write anything I wouldn’t be happy for everyone in the world to read. However, I have written very personal posts on my blog. I think that, by definition, anyone who writes a blog isn’t too worried about privacy, at least when it comes to self expression. If you wanted your blog to be private, you’d write an offline diary!
As a child growing up in the UK I attended two boarding schools which meant sharing dormatories with other boys. On occasions this was great fun as sharing space promoted sociability and having fun. However there where many instances in which I wanted my own privacy and I’d escape to the library partly to read but also because it aforded me a quiet space away from other people in which I could relax and unwind. I think that my experiences at boarding school have instilled in me a desire for personal space. I enjoy the company of others but need “me time” during which I can be alone, read a book or simply relax. The desire for space is not confined to humans. Dogs are social creatures, however my dog retires to his bed once he has had enough of being stroked and will sigh audibly if someone attempts to pet him while he is relaxing in his basket.
Excellent reading. Space is important according to your age, I feel. If we are talking about physical space, I would like to say that when I didn’t own a house of my own I looked around for a flat to house my small family. Then as time wore on, we bought ourselves land to build a house with a small garden in the front. We were thrilled with the space which was big enough for my growing brood. Now the brood have outgrown the space to look for spaces of their own leaving us with so much open space that we hardly use the living room. Now come to think of it I will have to seriously think of moving into smaller space!
Thanks for a really interesting post, please keep it up! Your comment about travelling on crowded buses made me think of my commute. After a train ride into London I have a short journey on the tube to get to my office. The tube is so crowded that you quite literally might have your nose in someone else’s armpit. For a short person, this is particularly unpleasant. It is almost a taboo to speak to, or even make eye contact with anyone else in the carriage, as if by ignoring everyone else you can deny your feelings of discomfort at being in such close proximity. Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) joked after the Olympics that one of the successes of the Olympics was that people talked to other people on the tube. The effect didn’t last long though!
Having lived in India this resonates. The comparisons however are not particular to America but to any First World country compared to any Third World and heavily populated country.
I could understand, coming from Australia, how Indian friends who visited actually felt ‘lonely’ in a big house, not full of family, friends, servants most of the time and how our distances and space and emptiness – particularly dark nights if one drove out of a city, could be frightening.
More importantly is the understanding that what we grow up with is what we know and it is the familiar which makes us comfortable. As an Australian I found India (and China for that matter) so crowded, noisy, and busy that it was claustrophobic and I found the constant presence of other people to be unsettling. For Indians it was the opposite.
I also found Indians to be often uncaring of anyone who did not belong to family or extended community and while the caste system plays a part in this, there is no doubt that with so many people – Chinese are the same – one has to ‘close off’ in order to survive. Whereas in First world and less heavily populated countries like Australia and the US, although Australia, much, much less so than the US with the same country-size holding 23million people and not 360million people, there is far greater consciousness of and responsibility to, the greater community.
This community consciousness is found in all First World, developed, democratic nations and is sourced in English and European attitudes of centuries past but I suspect the reason why it has not translated into India, or China, despite centuries of British colonisation, is because of the difference in culture, religion, and the sheer weight of numbers.
But it is a reminder, as I learned in more than four years of India, that we simply cannot understand another culture until we live in it – for a minimum of two years I would add – everything else is conjecture.
This is a thought-provoking post.
Thanks for your insightful response.
1. Yes, coming from more populous places, less populated areas seem very lonely. If nothing else, the silence can seem killing. The reverse is true for people used to less populated places who move to metropolitan areas or countries with very high population density (that’s why I like Manhattan :)). This is often reflected in people’s preferences regarding what is in demand–in the US where houses are concerned, corner plots cost less whereas in India corner plots and proximity to bus stops etc. are seen as important positives (I hesitate to make universal assertions though!)
2. I agree that individualism is possible to nurture in situations where people can depend on public resources to stand by them in times of need (for example in the so called “first world.”) This is often challenged in times of crisis such as the current economic crisis in the US when young people are being forced to move back in with their parents–seen as a sign of shame and failure by the larger culture–would never be such a problem in traditional Indian culture.
It might be true that Indians (and maybe the Chinese–I’m not very knowledgeable here) need to “close off” in order to survive because there are so many of us and maybe that’s why they come across as uncaring to people outside of the family, extended family (which can include people from the same village or even city) but I think the more important factor is that Indian society traditionally worked through a familial administrative structure (the patriarch as head of the large joint family–remnants of which are still there) rather than through the idea of the nation/ democracy as they are understood through Western ideas of civic government. One of the reasons 250 yrs of British colonization did not change that is because British culture was too different and they were not settlers in India.
So I would say that community consciousness is there in Indian culture–it just does not manifest itself in the way it does in the “first world” and this sense of community often works in spite of, rather than through available civic structures. [An unfortunate effect of this is that people will do a lot for you if you’re in their camp–keep seats in buses, guard your luggage etc–more than I’ve seen in many affluent countries but will not bother much if you’re not part of the group unless you can find a “connection”]
Of course, these systems are broken (both familial and civic) in the current context but hopefully there will be positive change.
Thanks for a very thought-provoking comment.
I did come to understand that living in India – the lack of people and the silence as you say – killing and frightening. Although I think people are different in all cultures and it is greater for some than for others.
In Australia houses on busy roads cost less. I don’t think corners matter much. But Asian immigrants have no problem with busy roads or noise. For all the reasons we can understand.
Your comments on individualism are interesting. I would make the point that it is the US which has taken individualism to the greatest extreme of any developed nation and has paid a price for it.
The US has the least and worst social welfare safety net of any developed nation and because of it the highest levels of poverty and crime. And these are the reasons why the economic crisis has hit the US harder than anyone else – excluding the countries which have always displayed economic incompetence like Greece and which have never been First World anyway.
I am not sure that ‘moving back in with parents’ is particularly related to economic crisis however for this is a norm throughout the developed world. In many cases they don’t leave. I see this as more a generational difference where parents are happy to have their children stay and can afford to have their children remain at home. In generations past they could not. Children left home to stand on their own two feet as soon as they could because it was required. When it is not required you get families remaining together.
Is this seen as a sign of shame and failure in the US? It isn’t in Australia, nor from what I could see living there, in the UK. It was just convenient and because more recent generations have had greater commonality between parents and kids they were all happy to keep on sharing space. In generations past kids could not wait to be free of parents. That has changed in many instances.
Perhaps it is seen as a failure and shameful in the US because so much emphasis is put on making money, having possessions, the image that one has and presents – in ways that it is not in other countries – in other developed countries. My impression of the US is that it matters a great deal, how much you earn, what job you have, what house you have, how you live etc., in ways more common in Third World countries than other First World countries. Image is all.
And yes, I also observed the patriarchal nature of Indian society. African is similar although not quite so patriarchal. I was always struck by the thought that the problem with a patriarchal culture is that in a family of say 30, there is only one person with power and all responsibility for action rests on the father. In non-patriarchal societies you have access to the intelligence, skills, power of all 30! Perhaps this is why patriarchal societies are slowly dying out – they are a waste of human resource.
I thought your comment on the impact of British culture was interesting. Studying the history of both India and Britain and the colonising of India I was struck by how much they had in common. The English class system fitted perfectly into India’s caste system for instance and it was the Indians who invented what came to be called ‘red tape.’ In many ways I think they were a perfect match. But no, the English did not colonise in the way that they did North America, Australiasia and Canada. Although there was a lot of inter-marriage and the growth of Anglo-Indians. A fascinating sub-culture still.
Yes, I know community consciousness exists in india and perhaps I did not explain myself well enough. I really was saying what I think you are saying here – the consciousness relates only to those who ‘belong’ and not to those seen to be ‘other’ for whatever reason.
In truth, in times past, this is exactly how what we call the West worked and perhaps one of the greatest contributions – from the English actually – has been the development of a sense of community consciousness which is inclusive of all. The French were also active in developing this sense of responsibility to the community as a whole.
Your comment about luggage was interesting. Although I have found such ‘help’ in many affluent countries. I think it depends where you are and I guess the more one travels the more perspective there is.The difference with such help in non-affluent countries is that you are expected to pay for it. Although perhaps that only applies to foreigners.
What fascinates me most of all beyond seeking to understand different cultures is gaining some understanding of why they are the way they are. What makes the difference when in essence you have the same foundation?
Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, South Africa are all radically different cultures and yet all were founded by the English as colonial enterprises; all are democracies (although I use the word lightly these days in terms of South Africa); and South Africa excepted, all are immigrant societies with citizens from hundreds of different countries, religions and cultures. And yet the same ‘mix’ brings very different results.
I loved this post! I always wonder how much culture really affects people on levels that they might not even realize. I really like that you took the time to compare the two cultures, and I think that coming from a culture where privacy is less needed? desirable? would affect your writing. I think Americans tend to be very individualistic. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes it is really stupid, but i know it definitely comes out in my own writing, that I feel the need to have part of ME in there.
You made some complex points here.
I enjoyed your post. I actually find quite a connection to the Indian culture. I find that the faith I connect most deeply to is Hinduism. One of the things that I love about the culture is that relationships and personal business are kept personal, it’s a family affair and no one else’s business. The diametrically opposed ideals of a western culture, need privacy but will spill every detail, is something that could be improved by learning from other influences. Though I do share personal details on my blog, I suppose I find it to be a mask of sorts. No one I know reads it and no one who reads it knows me so it’s an outlet for my feelings, something which I find sometimes tough in every day life as I have my own personal barriers. I’ve been rather upset lately and have felt like writing about it as catharsis but a large part of me feels some things should be left unsaid in a forum such as this. I feel that if you are comfortable writing about yourself then you should, otherwise you should stay true to yourself because that’s what writing is about.
That last bit is good advice.
I always appreciate your willingness to share so openly.
a fascinating post, with lots to think about… I remember hearing of a Russian visitor who was so flabbergasted at the size of the first American houses he visited that he asked ‘Why do you need all this space?”
Privacy is so different to space….
Yes. That’s true!
A very interesting post. I’d share my Canadian perspective but a good friend of mine has already done that here: http://mobunited.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/canadian-sorry/
This was too funny! We do have an equivalent of sorry in my language Bengali, but I’ve never heard it being used.
I lived in Bombay. We were told there was no word for Thankyou or Sorry in Hindi!
The word for “thank you” is “dhanyavaad” or “shukriya” in Hindi. People do say “maaf kijiye” when they mean sorry in Hindi. These words are not used often. People show gratitude by gestures or conversation in other ways.
Using these words might sometimes be seen as a sign of formality which might alienate or insult the person being spoken to. At the same time, people do use “thank you” a lot in English–the use of English makes them express and receive gratitude according to the social mores of a “Western” culture which many bilingual people have imbibed as their own anyway as much as “Indian” culture. Even those who cannot use spoken English know sorry and thank you. 🙂
What they may have meant is what you say here, that people don’t use those words very often. That there are other ways to show gratitude. Ways of course that someone who is not from the culture can miss.
Although this applies to all cultures. There is a saying that the most powerful messages a child receives are non-verbal and there is some truth to this for all of us when relating to those from other cultures.
I remember when we lived and worked in Belgium and while people spoke excellent English I realised that they mistook the frank, friendly, easy-going Australian manner for ‘licence.’ It made me realise that Australian culture while generally easy-going and accepting, actually had a host of ‘unwritten and unspoken’ codes of conduct and courtesy. These were things which no-one would pick up unless raised in that culture or they have lived there for a long time. It wasn’t that an Australian would be offended by the omissions, but that it would be ‘noted’ that people were speaking or acting ‘out of place.’
I suppose a classic example is that if you meet socially and mix with your boss and superiors then you relate to them as you would to anyone else – but you never carry that ‘familiarity’ through into the workplace. The British keep it simple – you don’t relate in familiar ways in either context. But it was an interesting insight into the subtlety of cultural attitudes and behaviour. And no doubt just as one person’s ‘frank’ is another person’s ‘rude’ then so is one person’s ‘friendliness’ another person’s ‘too familiar.’
Such cultural differences are grist for the mill for any writer and a joy for any reader.
I have lived in Canada and spent months at a time in the US with family members living there over a 14 year period. I first went to Canada in the 1970’s and was living there about six years ago. There is no doubt that Canada has become more ‘Americanised’ but that is more accent, food, shops etc., than actual culture although I do believe that North Americans – and this is an Australian Anglo perspective – share a commonality in terms of ‘reserve’ or a desire for ‘privacy.’ Canadians make no pretence about this but Americans tend to ‘hide’ their innate reserve with extroversion. Perhaps it is the climate to some degree because the Americans of the South are more outgoing than those of the north in my experience. Sunshine does, I believe, create a greater open-ness and frankness – a reaching out to life perhaps. Australians and South Africans have a lot in common although they are radically different cultures because of historically different experiences. Australians and New Zealanders also have a lot in common with more shared historical experiences but the relationship is ‘influenced’ by the big/small factor, just as the Canadian relationship with the US is and that introduces a competitiveness which perhaps encourages people, consciously and unconsciously, to seek to be ‘other’ than the ‘bigger’ neighbour.
It is a fascinating exercise to study cultures with a common language and a term which comes to my mind often is: ‘divided by a common language.’ I have lived in Australia, the UK, Canada, the US and have NZ family and I am always struck by how often we talk to someone in English and expect to be understood comprehensively, but are not understood.
And this is where culture comes in. Australians probably have most in common with the Brits because we share a lot of the same sense of humour; then the Canadians because we seem to share a lot of the same attitudes; next the New Zealanders, followed by the South Africans and last the US which is a radically different culture for all sorts of historical, cultural, religious reasons.
Perhaps the miracle of it all is that we manage to understand each other more often than not despite the differences.
I haven’t traveled much at all, really only been to the states though I hope to visit Britain one day.
I have noticed American’s seem both friendlier and more guarded than my fellow Canadians. Granted I may just say that given my biases for my home country.
Having spent a lot of time in both countries I would say they are both friendly but in different ways. My experience was that Canadians were slow to welcome you into their lives but when they did they meant it and followed through. If they take you in they want it to work. Australians are not slow to welcome people into their lives and they do mean it and follow through and if it doesn’t work out then so be it – no-one is bothered. The British are slow to welcome people into their lives because they worry that it won’t work out and they will be stuck with you. Americans talk about welcoming you into their lives, homes, etc., and appear friendly but often it is all talk and they don’t follow through. Although I would say this attitude differs to varying degrees between north and south. Just my experience however.
But having lived and travelled around the world for decades my sense is that most people and cultures are friendly, it is just that there are different expectations which we may miss.
My experience of the Third World is that ‘friendliness’ is often mixed with ‘usefulness’ and this is something people from the First World ‘miss’ and mix-up. I don’t mean that in any condemnatory sense. The reality of life in the Third World means that people have more need to ‘make useful acquaintances’ as opposed to ‘true friends.’ In addition, my experiences of places like India and Africa is that they are actually culturally less accepting of differences. I know that ‘racism’ is a word often aimed at the West but my experience has been that there is far less racism in Western countries than there is in the rest. Again, just my opinion and impressions.
This was perfect after writing floors today.
My ‘invisible hand’ becomes more visible with each added year – my life is in most ways an open book (there’s a pun there, as I’ve written in my later years such partially shameful, yet, honest books about my life). I also shamefully digress!
Your comments not only beautifully contrast our cultures, but they have a remarkable humility and sincerity. Even with language barriers, there are so many wonderful people in the world, but there will always be those few who make it difficult for all of us to become truly united. But, then, I have entered my ‘gilded age.’
As always, thanks for your thought-provoking posts.
and thanks for your thought-provoking comment
I used to have Indian students for IS&T people. Made some contacts. My latest sort-of-organized adventure plans is to walk across India – the skinny part…Mangalore/Bangalore/Madras. Feel like taking a walk? Later
Sounds like a very long walk! Good luck!
What a fantastic, authentic and very real portrait of your first impressions in America. As an American, I can understand where you are coming from, and appreciate that you pointed out things to me I would never have considered. As a whole, I would say we are a private lot, and becoming more distrustful of the people around us. As a result, genuine conversation seems to be lacking, much to my dismay. My parents are very outgoing people, and are not afraid to speak with strangers when at the store, or on their way to work. But my generation is glued to our smartphones, heads down, the world passing us by without us even realizing it.
Again, thank you for sharing this beautiful post, and for reading my own entry, “iJordan.” I sincerely appreciate the support.
Have a wonderful day 🙂
Yes, other factors come in too such as age and class. Maybe more.
Nice contrast and observations. We bring our backgrounds into our writing whether we intend to do so or not. I wouldn’t worry about showing more of yourself- if you intentionally try, the writing will suffer. Just write what you want and your emotions and perspectives will come through. I think…
Thanks. Freedom helps!
Very insightful post! It was interesting to read and learn and compare two distinctly different cultures and now I’m left contemplating my own life. I’m very liberal with my “privacy” in written form. But in person to person encounters sometimes its like talking to a wall. I don’t open up easily. Especially at work. I have walls and walls of boundaries up around me but thinking of my blog? My life is on a plate, though with limits because family members that have access to read it and we are not the…sharing..kind of family.
And as one of those people that suggested more you, this was what I was talking about. A little insight into your mind. Your experiences and culture briefly shared to bring to life concepts. The personal touch really brought this post to life and what kept me engaged while reading.
Thanks for your insight. I was going to reflect on our sense of privacy online as well but maybe in another post.
I didn’t see that post, but if I had, my comment would have been the same: I would love to see a little more of you here! I enjoy good writing for good writing, but when blogging, I love having a sense of connection with the blogger as well. Some of the bloggers I follow are bare-all; others share fleeting moments in time. Somehow, though, each has piqued my interest in them such that I want to keep seeing them. I love food for thought with a bit of the thinker’s identity clearly scattered throughout. This post, then, was a treat. Thank you.
Also, I used to be a bare-lots blogger*, but these days . . . I’m thinking of sticking to moments in time, unless inspiration dictates otherwise on any given day.
* I could never say “bare-all,” because I don’t like writing about those I love except with their case-by-case blessing.
Thanks for sharing what you like to see in a blogger.
Saying “bare all” might not be a good idea anyway since spam filters might catch it! 🙂
Heh. Good call! 😀
It is interesting reading this though your eyes. Thanks for sharing.
Your post makes me think about how I use the identity of a writer as a bit of a shield – I wouldn’t consider sharing intimate details of my personal life on my blog – instead I write fiction and what I hope are informative and somewhat witty reflections on various topics. And anyway, we all know what they say about writers – they hope to get paid to lie. I read blog posts everyday that seem to reveal the most private of private issues that people can have- as if the blog world provides a type of anonymity – a forum for reveal all therapy – and this may very well help some people. I hope it does. Maybe it is an age issue as much as a cultural issue – social media has certainly lowered a lot of barriers and many younger people take far more for granted in terms of sharing their story than I would.
As always – your personal experiences of two very different cultures is informative and interesting.
I was going to talk about privacy and social media but then thought it would be too much to handle in one post. Thanks Francis.
There is a lot of truth to what you shared. Americans are somewhat spoiled (you didn’t say that – but I’m labeling it as such), and need all that “physical space.” – I see it as an entitlement: “I need my space when I want it – but I’m going to spill my insides even when you don’t want to hear it.” (TMI – too much info). We have a great deal to learn from other cultures.
This is true. Conversely, some of us Indians could lighten up a bit and take it easy 🙂