Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Manners and Power

I walk a lot on the crowded sidewalks along the busy, dusty streets of Tirana. I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that nobody makes room for other people who are passing in the opposite direction and it doesn't seem to bother anyone. I end up at the end of the day with bruised elbows and a sore hip from being knocked aside by all the oncoming people. I try to be aware of my surroundings and I move to the side if someone is coming towards me, but sometimes there is not much room on my side and then I would expect the other person to move aside, if just a little. But they don't.

I wonder about this. Is it a cultural thing? Often we blame the Balkan/SouthEast Europe cultural idiosyncracies on long reigns of communism. Did that experience make people insensitive to other people? It probably did but can we blame this tendancy in young people on something that happened to their parents? How does a society change for the better?

Or perhaps it is an issue of manners? I met an Albanian man yesterday who introduced himself to me as a Prince, in fact Albanian Royalty. (Do they really exist??) I would expect a Prince to have impeccable manners, but his were sorely lacking. When he spoke to me he stood right in my face, just inches away, and with every point he wanted to make he poked my arm annoyingly.

I wonder about manners. What are good manners as seen by Albanians? Which manners are taught to children by their parents? Albanians pride themselves on their legendary hospitality, and that is certainly something they should be proud of. But what of daily manners on the street? How about being kind to one another? Being gentle? Being patient? Being nice? Showing mercy?

I've raised my son to open doors for women, to pull out a chair, to assist when help is needed. In Albania, no man (actually no woman either) has ever opened a door for me, nor stepped to one side on the sidewalk in order to let me go by. In my family, being polite and showing good manners is not a sign of weakness, but here in Albania it appears to be just that. Individuals in ex-communist societies struggle with power issues all the time. I'm sure they still feel powerless, and by deliberately not being considerate of others they imagine themselves to holding on to the tiny bit of power that they think they have. But it's a skewed way of thinking. Really powerful people care about others, are kind to each other, and never, ever have to lord it over anyone.

In a country that is crying for change, the first lesson should be one on manners.

"Manners are stronger than laws”

Thomas Carlyle,
Scottish Historian and Essayist, leading figure in the Victorian era. 1795-1881


ITS said...

Hey Kim,

I am sorry for your bitter experience in the lack of manners. I would definitely open the door for you, and I was educated that way, long before I left Albania.

I think most of the people that clutter the sidewalks of downtown-Tirana, are either teen-agers or newcomers to the capital from the deep north, where they inherently are more of rough-tough kind, and lack some of the basic internationally accepted manners.

People from the capital (truly from there) or from the south tend to be a bit more polite and mild, and not so much out there to prove their little amount of power, which I call "small people's syndrome".

And lastly whatever prince you might have met, if he were from the Zogolli family, I wouldn't place any more stock to it that any of the other new-comers to the capital. Albania in its modern history was a Monarchy for only about 20 years or so (1914-1939). The "royals", which were a bunch of gruesome power-mongers themselves, didn't get to enjoy their kingdom long enough to learn that poking somebody in the arm to get attention it's not a polite thing to do.


Ll.T. said...

In the "old times" the manners were all there; we had classes in school on how to behave and "do not spit" signs on the ground (in Durres they're built into the pavement). Unfortunately with "democracy" we ended up rejecting everything that belonged to everybody, good manners included, and valuing only individualistic pursuits, power, showing off etc.....

I think it is a temporary thing, eventually as the "old west" days recede and people become more sophisticated then good manners will return.

Miss Kim said...

Thank you gentlemen :)
These are the kind of comments I was hoping to recieve. I really need (and enjoy) the intelligent, informed feedback that you give. There is a definite "Small people's syndrome" here, obvious in the way people drive cars. But even those who don't have a car show it in their manner of walking. I thought about a post on spitting as well- you can't walk 5 metres without having to step over someone's spit. Where does that urge come from?? It's disgusting.
It's good to hear that at one time manners where taught in school. Perhaps they will one day make a comeback, starting with the leaders of the country. Let's hope.

Cynthia Rae said...
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Cynthia Rae said...

In Italy is it thought be a good thing if you are "smart" enough to sneak or shove your way to the front of the line!

As for moving aside on the sidewalks, people here will move. One thing I have noticed is that there is no such thing as personal space here. It drives my Mom crazy when she visits because she likes her "American bubble" around her. Here people will walk right up your back when you are standing in line.

Different cultures, different people.

Lily said...
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Lily said...

It is always quite sad to hear of all society's ills being blamed on a particular group. There are good/bad, polite/inconsiderate people in the north, south,etc.

I haven’t lived in Albania in a long, long time so I don’t know how things are now, but I do remember citizenship classes at school were very important. I think the main focus of that was to respect anyone older than you, give up your seat on a bus, help them if they need to, speak quietly in public places etc. Stories in primary school books always seemed to focus on good manners, e.g. helping an old lady with her bags, saying thank you to the kind “xhaxhi” who gave you your ball back from his garden etc.

Trivial examples, but it shows the knowledge was there, and just like everywhere some people followed it, some chose to ignore it. This was probably down to the parents, how much importance they placed on manners, how they interacted with their children etc. I always remember as a child I would rush first on a bus, shop etc, but my dad always held my hand back and would say “wait here, let the lady/man go first” or just say walk properly, don’t block the whole pavement (yes, manners in the north, amazing isn’t it!!). However, even then some were simply rude and had no consideration for anyone but they were probably a minority, and not "everyone for himself" like it seems to be now.

I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such negative experiences Kim. It seems things have deteriorated further. It would be a real shame for Albania if things didn’t improve.

Miss Kim said...

Cynthia... personal space is really quite a major cultural difference between Europe and North America isn't it? It's definitely something I find difficult to get used to.
Lily...I agree with you.. the north of Albania gets blamed/classified with all sorts of negative characteristics. And that's definitely wrong.
As for modern manners, I don't know how children are behaving nowadays but the most obvious lack of manners is in people over 20 and up to 80) who should know better. Modern Albanians seem not to care who they have to step on to get ahead. And honestly, 'getting ahead' whether it be in a line-up or on the corporate ladder, isn't the goal of life is it?

Esben Agersnap said...

Living in India I can definitely recognize your experiences. Here I find that it is indeed a matter of culture. When someone is standing on the sidewalk, then it is my job to move around them (even if that involved a detour onto a busy road) rather than their job to make way. China is even more extreme in this regard. There it is my job to avoid people smoking in small confined buses, talking loudly on the phone everywhere, spitting everywhere, farting everywhere, watching TV in their hotel room at highest volume etc. etc. It is certainly not their job to show any kind of consideration for others and no one expects to be met by consideration either.

In traffic in India it is much the same. Whereas cutting in front would be met by furious honking and obscene hand gestures in Europe, here in India there is a definite element of SPORT in this. I have noticed that when people come from the side and without hesitation cut off my taxi drivers they don't get mad - in stead they nod in recognition. As I said it's all a game here.

Esben Agersnap said...

By the way, back in January I wrote an article about privacy and personal space in India. If lack of personal space is a problem for American visitors in Europe, then you are really in for an extreme experience in India. I hope it's okay to post the link here, since it seems relevant in this context:

Esben Agersnap said...

I'm sorry, my previous hyperlink didn't work. Let me try again:


I will stop spamming you now :o)

Liza said...

Lack of manners is a serious problem here in Israel as well, and while I usually find it appalling, I also find that if necessary, I can be just as rude as those people who have chosen to be rude to me (I never initiate, only respond!).

On the other hand, I'm teaching my son to be polite. At 2 1/2, he says "please" and "thank you" with almost no prompting, will say "sorry" if we push him (he doesn't seem to like that one!), and will say "bless you" if you sneeze. Once he starts using "excuse me", people will know for sure that he's under "foreign" influence!

christina said...

Well, you know I've complained about some of these issues in Germany as well and came to the conclusion that it's partly cultural. But bad manners and not being taught to be senstive to those around one also plays a role, I think.

I really understand how you feel. It's hard not to take in personally and it can be *quite* jarring (figuratively and literally!) when you come from a culture that places great importance on personal space and being considerate of other.

ITS said...

Now that I thought about it some more, I am not thrilled with Americans and Canadians manners eithers.

People in New York tend to run you over on the croweded streets too. There was always pushing and shoving on getting on the subway, or simply crossing the streets.

And people in Montreal are most definitely rude. It's probably the big city lifestyle that brings out the worst in people. Just this morning when I was in a rush to get work, people on the escalators in groups of 2 and 3 will block the entire width, and will stand there like idiots, without allowing a passing lane.

I always have to say in my loud eastern european accent: "Excuuuuuse me!!!!"

We won't get into the whole what color of skin the people that block escalators have. We'll just say that it's the Canadians!

Cheers from rainy MTL,

Miss Kim said...

Bad manners, rudeness, and a general lack of awareness is everywhere. How can we change the world?

PS ITS... a few weeks ago a couple of young Albanians introduced themselves to us and said they KNEW we were foreigners because we're WHITE! We got a huge laugh out of that one.

christina said...

Sure, bad manners are everywhere but one can hardly use New York and Montreal as examples for the WHOLE of the U.S. and Canada. These cities are a whole different ball game and it just doesn't compute. :-)

bizele said...

I am also sorry to read about your unpleasant experiences in the streets of Tirana. My nostalgia for my city, would completely overshadow and render any of these complaints unimportant, but that is because I miss the place not because your complaints don’t have any merit. I think you are very correct in everything that you have explained.

The reason for the lack of manners as you describe it, I believe is a combination of several factors. Number one is a combination of the Balkan culture along with heavy traits of communism. The lack of personal space thing, you will encounter almost across all over Europe, and especially across the Mediterranean. When I first came into the states, Americans seemed cold, uncaring to one another, and not very friendly amongst friends if that makes any sense at all, precisely because of the personal space which distances one individual from another.

Other ordinary, but nevertheless important things, such as opening a door for a woman, it’s something that we have lost in our transition from communism to democracy. You have to understand, that this is what happens when you are so protected and aloof from the rest of the world. All the sudden when you are able to see and open your eyes wide open and see all kinds of things from the western world, which has its own good and band things. When this happens, people begin to lose a sense of the good and the bad, and they start believing that in the western world you can do everything, say anything, and even have no manners at all because you are free and this is the way the west does it. I hope it’s only a matter of time and that most of these issues get corrected over the years.

P.S. everything also depends on the person’s personal manners, and family culture.

Ginnie said...

Very interesting to read this discussion, Kim. It makes me wonder how we can "be true" to ourselves and our culture when there are so many disparate ways of looking at things.

Is there a universal ettiquette on any of this? Or do we just think there SHOULD be?

Anonymous said...

Traveller one: I belive that the young Albanians that were speaking to you said White meaning Pale, as pale skin compared to theirs.Perhaps you should have corrected them.
Ahh. Yes. You change the world one at a time starting from yourself.
P.S. Kim, I truly enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up.OOOOO Canada.

Miss Kim said...

bizele... you have really helpful insights on this topic- thanks so much for sharing them! We could add the concept of 'nostalgia' and 'homesickness' to the discussion at this point I think. They do have a lot to do with our reactions to situations which make us uncomfortable. It's really fascinating that you felt Americans were cold as compared to Albanians back home. I can see how you would feel that. Another whole discussion we should have is on the concept of 'freedom' as it relates to ex-communist countries. What a huge kettle of fish! Let's hope that Albania eventually absorbs the good things from the west and throws out the negative stuff.

ginnie... maybe I could become the Albanian Emily Post! LOL! Of course part of the problem is that we "think it should be" this way or that. How much easier my life would be if I truly lived my Zen philosophy of acceptance. Hummm... now you've got me thinking- which really could change my day! Thank You!

ITS said...

christina said...

"Sure, bad manners are everywhere but one can hardly use New York and Montreal as examples for the WHOLE of the U.S. and Canada. These cities are a whole different ball game and it just doesn't compute. :-)"

Nor does Tirana downtown area compute for the whole of Albania.

/my very last 2 cents on this matter

J. said...

You know. The sidewalk smash is a similar phenomenon here in Bosnia. We're always having to say, "Izvini, Izvini!!!" You really start to feel like a native when you can dodge the elbows and the body blows like a local! (My two cents, though late, is that bad disposition has something to do with a crappy economy. Everyone's poor and pissed off.)

Anonymous said...

kim=miss pordha

are u ashkenazi kim?

Kristen Beqari said...

My husband if from Tirana... born and raised, and is extremly considerate and has wonderful manners. He will always help an elderly person with their groceries, or a woman reach someting high up in a store. I absolutely believe that this has to do with the way he was raised. His parents and siblings are exactly the same way... If you instil manners into your children, while they are young, you have a good chance of raising a polite adult.