Sometimes I feel guilty about blogging. Not because I think it will make me go blind, but because I know it annoys people. Why do we fritter away our free time banging on about ‘Poland the way we see it‘? Who does it benefit?
From across the nation I hear an echoing cry of “Nobody! Stop doing it you annoying five o’clocker!” I can’t. It’s a hideous symptom of expat syndrome, for which there is no known cure.
This post is an attempt to provide an insight into the motivations of a blogger-about-Poland.
The other day, as I was checking the blog stats for the nine millionth time like some doomed compulsive disorder sufferer, I noticed we were receiving a lot of traffic from the fine people at skyscrapercity.com. Over I clicked to discover that some kind soul had posted a link to one of our ramblings on their forum pages. My general approval was deflated somewhat when I scrolled down to discover this comment:
to calkiem fajny blog, ale juz mnie powoli wkurza ten zarozumialy angol…
That’s a pretty cool blog, but I’m starting to get really pissed of with that arrogant Brit…
You know what, he’s got a point…
Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s more than one Brit here and the fact that ‘angol’ doesn’t have a direct English translation, for obvious reasons.
It is an act of remarkable arrogance to make judgments about an entire culture, especially one that isn’t even your own (I’m casting aspersions on myself here, not any other Polandians, I add hastily). So why do I do it? The fame, the girls, the fast cars and the copious gin and tonic? I think not. Why must there be another post about rudeness in shops, bureaucratic nightmares, or Polish drivers? Am I trying to bring about a cultural revolution in which Poles will be transformed into perfect beings? Am I just pointing and laughing? Absolutely not. The reason is—pay attention this is the important bit—because I’m compelled to try and understand the society in which I find myself.
Try this thought experiment:
1. Picture in your mind somebody you know really well (wife, husband, brother, manicurist, whatever).
2. Ask that person a question about something that happened to you today, something that you haven’t actually asked them in real life.
3. Observe as your brain runs its powerful personality simulating software and provides you with an animated model of that person replying to your question, complete with mannerisms and vocal inflections.
The human brain, at least in one of its guises, is essentially a powerful person simulator. It can accurately predict how a person you know is going to behave in a given situation. This is the main reason why alien invaders in movies never get away with taking on the hero’s bodily form, his girlfriend always notices. Why? Because her predictive software doesn’t corresponding with reality. We’re so confident in the power of this ability that when somebody suddenly starts behaving in a way that is contrary to our internal predictions we assume they’ve gone mad, or been possessed by psychic being from the Crab Nebula, we don’t assume our software has gone buggy.
Why am I banging on about brain software and Crab Nebuleans? Because the brain software that works for accurately predicting the behavior of people you know also works pretty well for predicting the behavior of people who share the same culture as you. In fact, that’s a pretty good definition of what culture is—the shared and mutually predictable preferences, beliefs, and knowledge of an extended social group.
Moving to a foreign country it’s a bit like adjusting an IBM supercomputer with a sledgehammer, the old brain box just doesn’t provide good info anymore. You’d be amazed at how much of Polish culture is just that little bit different. Not much, but enough to start smoke coming out of your ears. The people around you don’t behave in the way you expect them to. Even when you get used to the way they behave you still can’t figure out why they behave that way.
This is damn hard stuff to articulate, so please bear with me.
Let’s move from the general to the specific. There are two issues that come into play here:
1. Superficially Poland looks like the cultural environment I’m used to. The people are predominantly white and European, they wear the same kind of clothes as me, they have the same kind of hairstyles, they eat the same kind of food, they live in the same kind of buildings—Dr Brain feels pretty confident that he knows what he’s dealing with. If I were surrounded by eight-foot-tall semi-naked Somalis living in huts made from mud bricks and supping fermented goats’ milk Dr Brain would shut the hell up and wait to see what happens. The British expat in Poland is lulled into a false sense of security by the general familiarity of the environment.
2. Once the expat in Poland realizes that he’s going to have to rethink his initial cultural confidence he moves into a childlike phase of exploration. Polish culture is immensely complex and multi-faceted, in fact it’s exactly as complex and multi-faceted as every other culture in the world—people made it, how could it be otherwise. The foreigner may be aware of this fact, but there is no way that he can ‘see’ all this complexity at once. All one can see to start with is the broadest of broad outlines, and he can’t help but use his existing understanding of culture to interpret it.
That’s my, long-winded, excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Consider this statement:
I’m completely freaked out by the way people walk all over the place and get in your way all the time!
Just another cliched comment about the Polish? Actually no, a comment on an American website about living in England. I was appalled! As far as I’m concerned pedestrian etiquette in the UK is second to none, it’s the Poles who constantly get in your way and have no consideration. You see where I’m going with this. To a foreigner everything is wrong, even in god’s own country.