Recently I was speaking in front of a group, and I told them that what made it difficult for me to do so was my culture. Where I come from, I said, we don’t do this stuff. We don’t share our feeeeeelings in front of a group. So every time I open my mouth in a group setting (and living in Europe I’ve done this a lot), I feel that I am being punished by my ancestors.
Everyone laughed and it passed like a nice little warm-up joke. What I did not realise was that perhaps it sounded to them as if I was criticising my culture.
But I wasn’t.
If there is one thing we human beings are good at, it is social and cultural adaptation. We change. We adapt to the norms of the society we’re in. All that Romans stuff. If we fail, we are seen not only as an outsider, but as an insult to the humanity in general. If you can’t do like the Romans, it means you are inflexible, narrow-minded, unintelligent, and therefore second-rate.
Which is fine. I mean, I’m all for it. I love to do the translation work, travelling from one culture to another, hence this blog. And I love to see how much I can flex without compromising my integrity.
And I have mastered this group-therapy thing. I am so good at it that I feel embarrassed sometimes when I see that others (some Western people included) are not as good at it as I am. It’s not natural for some of them to blurt out a bunch of insights into the dealings of their inner lives in front of complete strangers. For me, it works more often than it doesn’t. And all that in spite of the fact that I am an inveterate introvert (try saying this quickly). So I should be proud of the lengths I’ve overcome.
I am, and I am equally proud of where I started. Because this group-sharing thing is great, and a wonderful foundation of democracy, amen. But it can be equally shallow and selfish.
I discovered during my travelling abroad and studying at European universities that in Europe, and perhaps even more so in the US, children are taught to say anything. You just have to say stuff in class. It’s called participation or something like that.
This category of performance does not exist in the Russian educational system. Or it did not exist when I studied. Or it may exist somewhere, and may exist formally, but culturally it is discouraged. If you open your mouth, you should say something worth listening to. No-one cares about your opinion if it is mediocre, unremarkable, trivial, or simply wrong.
In the West, they seem to care. Or at least they pretend to. Because we are humanists and the individual human is the measure of all things.
I had to teach myself to say something, no matter what. If I don’t say a bunch of stuff, I don’t exist. I only exist when my voice is heard.
In so-called group therapy this is taken to another level. We share feelings and experiences, we share stories. This idea was revolutionary for me when I was 17. It is probably still revolutionary for many people in Russia. But of course it is much more common now than it was 15 years ago. Because we adapt and we change.
But can it transform us deeply, if it is something alien to our culture? If our ancestors frown when we open our mouth? Do we need something else, something deeper: conversations till morning, in the kitchen, perhaps? Tea parties which start with someone ‘popping in’ for a cup of tea and staying on for 10 hours?
(You can replace ‘tea’ with other suggestions, but I’d like to remind you that Russians=vodka is a very out-of-date cliché. We are a great tea culture – something I totally miss in Sweden. Something that exists in the UK – but there I found that tea-drinking sessions are not nearly long enough to pour out one’s soul…)