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The word “social” has risen to the forefront of our lexicon. We are social each day when we go to a party, chat with co-workers or even just sign on Facebook. Sometimes being social means going out with friends, sometimes it just means being talkative. It has become such a common word it almost seems that we have lost our connection to its meaning, and how that meaning differs from culture to culture and person to person: not all of us are social in the same ways.
My empirical evidence within my own life and travels has led me to see certain differences in the way people to treat this little word. I have generalized this against what I hear from friends from otherwhere in the world. In short, I have stereotyped. I suppose an anthropologist could help us quantify these generalizations and slap a more PC-sounding tag on it, but at the end of the day in looking at different peoples and making generalizations about them as a whole rather than as individuals is simply an act of stereotyping.
Listen to the Podcast
Today is the second Life by Experimentation podcast. You can listen to the podcast, below, or subscribe in iTunes, or just read the text version of the article without listening.
Question: Do you Really Want to Be Social?
The word “social” is linked to the word “society,” which is to say that it changes based upon where you are in the world. Different places have different expectations, customs and beliefs. Most of the time these differences seem relatively minor – some people may seem more or less outgoing – but “being social” is also about participating in society. In Morocco, for example, I participated in the Eid al-Adha holiday, which involved ritually killing, skinning, cooking and eating a goat. This was a family activity and everyone up to my host’s grandmother participated, which illustrates how a “social activity” differs between cultures.
Introverts vs. Extroverts
An introvert is someone who “recharges” by being on her own, according to famous psychiatrist Carl Jung who originally coined the word. I like this definition more than most because it does not preclude the possibility of an introvert of being a social person. Most people I know are, in fact, introverts (by this definition), most certainly including myself. We return within ourselves to find peace and quiet, but we venture forth from this mental place because we would like to meet the world and see what it has to say.
Yet we equate the word “extroverted” with “social” and seem to place a high value on “being social.” Are we implying that the path of the extrovert is preferred? It seems that a true extrovert is someone who requires the presence of others to find comfort, just as the introvert uses isolation as comfort. It seems that the greater virtue is that of being pleasant rather than extroverted or social.
Some people and even geographic regions treat this differently…
North vs. South
I have noticed that, like the weather in most of Europe and the United States, there tends to be certain correlation ideas about the personalities in the north and south. Those in the south generally seem to be thought of as somewhat brighter, and those in the north somewhat cool.
I clearly heard this sentiment expressed within Spain, France and Italy. Ask a local about the most relaxing and laid-back places and it will almost certainly be on the Mediterranean coast. Ask them where to go to be efficient and get something done and you’ll probably end up taking a trip to the north.
The pattern fits well in the United States, as well. Though LA and NY are certainly both majorly productive cities, the former carries images of surfers and flip-flop billionaires as compared to the latter’s reputation for suit-and-tie bankers and traders. I would even say I have seen this in the attitudes within Scandinavia (Sweden/Denmark/the Netherlands in particular). I have not been here for long enough to want to make any definitive statements, and perhaps I am suffering from a confirmation bias, but it seems to hold true.
When I moved from Michigan to California for University, it was one of the first experiences with culture shock that I have experienced; yet it remains one of the strongest. I had to learn an entirely new way of “being social,” one that is still somewhat at odds with what I prefer.
I loved southern California. I would recommend it to anybody, but for those who would consider themselves introverts I would add a caveat: that they have an established network of good friends available. In the Midwest of the USA, we had relatively small but tighter-knit groups of friends. 6 years after graduation, these friends are still my closest. I have made other good friends, but none others whom I would fly back to the USA just to visit at least once per year.
The point is that this is more difficult to find in California, in my experience as well as that of many others from similar parts of the USA whom I have spoken to. It is not that it does not exist (remember, we’re generalizing here but that the very nature of being social is different.
In Michigan I had a couple dozen people in my contact list, but I never used anything but the recent call list to find any of them. In California my list grew to hundreds within the first year, most of which I did not fully recognize (but I would have not been surprised if they called). Even after college ended, it was a bit like living in a world of half-friends. Not because they were mean or uncaring, but because the very nature of friendship was different. We would communicate when it was convenient, not as a part of our daily routine.
Of course, my old friends and I no longer talk as much as we used to, and that’s okay. The initial foundation we built together allows us to come together every so often as if nothing had changed. I do have good friends from California, but the majority are actually from the Midwest or surrounding areas originally. This is not to say that there are not like-minded people in California, or even that the predominant approach is necessarily a bad one, but simply an observation on a very high correlation.
Travelers are Social Chameleons
Benny recently wrote a post about his impressions of Amsterdam and also posted some videos of himself speaking with different Spanish accents. This got me thinking about the ways that travelers learn to move in and out of different cultures while still maintaining their own sense of identity. There have been some claims that being a polyglot leads to having multiple personalities, and while I disagree with the sensationalist claim I see where they are coming from.
I am proud to be an American when on the road, but that does not mean I do not adapt to local culture. It would be borderline rude not to, not to mention reaffirm the negative stereotypes of Americans. What strikes me is how we, as travelers, learn to maintain a general sense of friendliness yet change how we are friendly. Today, in Amsterdam, I will speak to a stranger in somewhat of a different manner than, say, in Central America. The culture is different and the people are different, so what they expect to get out of the social situation is different.
Everything I Just Said is Wrong
The only certainty when you generalize is that you will get it wrong for at least some of the people some of the time. I am sure you are all full of stories about how my theory is wrong/right, so let me know in the comments below!