Some conversations really get one thinking. Like the one I had recently with a Russian friend and colleague, Anton Malafeev. In my usual curiosity about foreign cultures I asked him about one way Russians are different from the Westerners. So he started describing that Russians find it hypocritical when Westerners, such as French or Italians ask others “How are you?” when they meet, even if they don’t really care about the answer. Without mentioning when American shop assistants ask “How are you?” when complete strangers enter their stores. As a response, the typical answers are on the line of “Fine, thanks” even if it’s not true, or in Italian “Si tira avanti” (we are getting by).
‘Point de view’ or reality?
I argued that in Italy it is common to ask each other “How are you?” if you meet someone you know, for example on the street or on the phone. Italians tend to be relationship oriented, and by asking that question we try to create a positive and friendly atmosphere. On the other side, Russians are more likely to be willing to listen to the “full” answer, whatever its content may be. The person who answers may say how things are, and if the answer is negative, the person who is asking may dig deeper to hear what is going on and why. As such, according to Russians, the exchange in the West comes across as empty, false and hypocritical.
I understood his point of view, but since I am Italian and am used to asking “How are you?” I didn’t really like the idea of considering my behaviour false and hypocritical… Especially because I had never meant it to be!
After reflecting about his words for a while, I cheerfully began dismissing this Russian perspective as simply ‘a different way to look at things’. Then my phone rang.
An acquaintance of mine was calling me, a person with whom I was organizing a small event. I answered the phone and automatically said: “Hi! How are you?”. And then I caught myself: I was secretly hoping she would not start telling me about all her troubles related to her aging dad! She didn’t, she just replied: “I’m ok, thanks. How are you?”. Relieved, I answered “I’m fine, busy but ok”. And then the real conversation about the event began.
So, there I was, realizing that for years I had been behaving in an insincere way, without even being aware of it!
Of course, I could argue that as long as the Italian way of asking “How are you?” is simply accepted as a norm by everyone else, then it’s ok. It doesn’t hurt anyone, does it? It is a positive demonstration that ‘I come in peace and without threat’, making the other feel welcome and safe, right? At least, the intention behind it is positive…
Who is right?
Even so, the realization of the Russians’ perspective on my ‘Italian’ behaviour gets me thinking. Who is right? The Russians with their value for straight-forward honesty, or the Italians with their value for making people feel good in their presence? Is there a right way and a wrong way? Who decides it?
Our cultural conditioning is extremely powerful. Since our birth, like sponges we grow up absorbing values and behavioural norms that stem from the culture we live in, accepting them as right without ever questioning them. We are so unaware of these mental programming that we act on them automatically, like robots. And we are even ready to fight fiercely in order to defend what somebody else made us believe to be right.
What behaviours and ideologies are you defending with great passion? Along with your perspective, what different perspective could also be right, if you were open to look at it more deeply?