Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Important Announcement I was informed that a website of unknown origin has published one of my articles (the one published below, named "The Cultural Gap" on their page tx.english-ch.com) I do not endorse the unauthorized copy of the text, and did not appreciate the fact this website published my post with entirely unrelated pictures. I already tried to contact them so they can delete both the pictures and my article, but to no avail.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The cultural "gap"

The magic of traveling and visiting other countries goes far beyond the obvious pleasures of sightseeing and postcard-quality pictures of you in front of a famous monument. Seeing different ways of life, surprising cultural practices and habits or peculiar social relations will certainly increase your awareness of the world, while improving your ability to judge, with a more educated level of scrutiny, your own society.

Even apparently simple details of your daily life can change, and the old views you had about them can suddenly become more acute or critical.

I still remember a conversation I had with some close friends a few years ago, when they were asking me to enlist the things I liked or disliked the most about living in 4 different countries. I then began to enumerate details that I liked about each country and also elaborated a short list of things I did not appreciate. Many "items" were new for them, as some countries have customs, habits or even laws that can be or sound very "weird", exotic or even surprising, for visitor or foreigners.

When debating my life in the United States, however, one particular item of my list became the central subject of discussion, as among the few things I don't particularly like here, I mentioned the following item:

"The common practice of allowing wide gaps between the door and the door frame in public restrooms, like the ones in airports, malls and other businesses, which allows incoming people to clearly see if there's somebody in a certain bathroom stall".

I always thought this very common practice in the United States is invasive and against the most elementary principles of individual privacy. Why can't all the doors have the strictly minimum necessary gap to open and close, thus blocking the view from the outside world and vice verse? Who decided that somebody else has the power, right or authority to see the person in a bathroom stall? The gaps are so wide that I would be able to recognize my high school friends if they were there! It would not be the most appropriate moment to say "hi", but that gives you an idea of how intrusive that gap is.

My friends were mostly surprised... they had never considered or evaluated the subject, since they "did not know any better" or how this "gap between the door and door frame in public restrooms" was dealt with in other countries. Why was I so keen to see that level of invasion? And why were my friends so "surprised"?

Probably because I have been in many other countries, and therefore have realized that it's socially unacceptable, in most of them, to have a bathroom with such a wide gap between the door and the door frame...

My friends began to give possible explanations for this practice: that the airports and businesses' supervisors might need to inspect bathrooms for drug use or other illegal acts, or that the gaps I saw were probably a construction defect, not an intentional feature (they were not, I have seen them in virtually any airport and mall in the US, and I travel a lot). They would sound convincing at first, but the truth is none of these explanations would justify such an invasion of a very basic individual right... the right to do our business in a bathroom without putting up a public show!

Well, this ended up being more than a cultural "gap". It became a discussion about the ways authorities and managers can eventually create a social pattern. You will fit, comply, obey and implicitly accept it, especially if you have never lived or experienced something different, or seen an alternative approach a social situation. Why isn't there a public discussion in the United States about this very clear invasion of our individual privacy? Why is this practice so widespread?

The main message here still validates the importance of traveling as a way to learn more about the "outside" world. But it can also be useful to discover new things about your own natural and social environment. It gives you a more educated view, a more resourceful power to judge and analyze, a more informed basis on which you can make your life decisions. And that's what educated taste is all about.