Thursday, February 16, 2012

So What Else Is New?

It's weird here too, and I grew up with it.

I read and hear about differences between Latin America and the United States. People move away and find things they don't expect, expect things they don't find, and don't find things they do expect. And so on.

There are differences. So far, for me, these are hypothetical. I can imagine, I can guess, I can suppose. And read, and listen, and think.

But some things aren't all that different.

The United States isn't static, nor is anywhere. A case in point is that the United States that I am in now is radically different from the country I was born into, and since I've been thinking about it I realize that the United States I'm in isn't the United States I've been assuming I was in.

Many things are going on. Some get better and some get worse. And some are not that different from what people encounter in Latin America, only offset a bit. Slightly rearranged, so people do feel a difference without an actual underlying distinction.

Take a few:

  • Architecture: Building construction is different. Sure. But where isn't it? In the U.S., commercial buildings are standard across the country but the rest is all different. I grew up in the northern plains, where there is winter. The first "winter" I experienced in western Washington saw temperatures dip briefly below freezing and all the pipes froze solid. People said I must be used to that. Nope. You don't lay pipes three inches below the grass where temperatures drop below zero for weeks at a time.
  • Sensory stimuli: The smells are different. People eat strange meals. Sushi vs. sauerkraut, potatoes, and pork sausage. Bacon-wrapped oysters as big as a fist vs. roast beef. Eh.
  • People: People definitely behave differently. Right. They're much more polite here, except while driving. And fewer of them go out each fall to shoot large mammals. I haven't had to leave the States to experience that.
  • Mañana: When someone says that something will happen "mañana", they do not necessarily mean "the day that follows today." I can see that. Definitely not standard operating procedure in the U.S. But not so different either. One thing I strongly remember from my work is people telling me just to wait. Eventually one thing or another would happen. Never did, not even eventually. Granted, if you had set up a business meeting or agreed on a delivery date, generally you'd expect it. Unless you're talking to your mother, or brother, or a friend, or an incompetent. "Well, one of these days," they might say, and that would be that. You learn who and when not to push.
  • Avoiding confrontation: Better to disappoint than confront. In the sense of getting wrong directions when the person you ask doesn't know, or of getting a promise when the person can't, or won't, or might not be able to deliver, or doesn't want to. This is a variation on "mañana". Catch anyone flat-footed, receive a polite lie from them, and follow through with cross-examination and see where that gets you. It's a matter of learning tact. Or of growing up you might say. No stranger owes you anything, not even directions to the next corner. Maybe it isn't always the response that is wrong but the asking. Or demanding.
  • Personal space: The way that you will find people blocking the grocery store aisles, the sidewalks, and the roads. As if. What exactly is polite and sedate about U.S. society? True, generally "Americans" do not like to touch strangers, at all, ever. Except for certain situations. It depends. True?
  • Noise: Barking dogs, crowing roosters, car horns, loud music. Hey. Depends on your neighborhood. No, fireworks are not a daily occurrence in most U.S. towns and cities. We have jet airplanes, trains, 10-lane freeways, motorcycles. And some of those cars with the 800-watt subwoofers too.
  • Poor customer service: People prefer to be positive and tend to say things are possible when they are not. Whereas in the U.S., businesses ignore you altogether. Every try calling customer support? Ever get an answer? I had to sue the telephone company to get them to quit lying to me via their representatives in India and actually communicate. In fact my first job was with a transplanted Texan who was the most unreliable, devious, disorganized, nicest, most agreeable and polite person I have ever known. I finally had to quit because he wasn't paying me. And somehow I don't hate him, though I will always hate the phone company. Forever. And. Ever.

Possible advice:

  • Always be respectful. Agreed. This is smart.
  • Learn the language and use it. Agreed. A requirement.
  • Be observant. Agreed. Or die trying.
  • Try not to take things personally. It's business. You may happen to call it life, but it's still business.

Basic rules:

  • One: Don't get mad. Don't get even. Get what you want.
  • Two: No matter what happens, learn from it.

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