Cultural rhythms

I recently went to a conference in Venice. Walking through the narrow streets for the business of getting to and from the conference site drew my attention again to walking rhythms. Where they were major routes for tourists I found I was bumping into people, they were stopping in front of me without warning, causing me to almost fall over small children, people weren’t moving aside when I walked up behind them and wanted to pass, and so on. Later I talked to Italian colleagues who lived there, who complained about the same thing. In a largely pedestrianised city, they said that they needed to walk fast to go about their business and were constantly stopped from doing this by crowds of tourists.

I have often found, when I am in a foreign place – in the first week when I go to Iran – that I’m not with the rhythm of how people walk in the street. I find the same when I’m walking in a narrow pavement at home when there are people walking in front of me who have recently arrived, probably as students or tourists. They don’t sense me and don’t move aside to let me pass. When I’m in Iran the problem stops as I somehow pick up the rhythm of the people around me. It takes about three days of going out and walking around. I remember when I first went there it was much worse. My finger nails and clothes got dirty because I was also touching and brushing against the physical environment. After a week this stopped happening.

Readers might experiment with this. Try walking up behind people to pass them and see if they intuitively notice you and move aside. If you share the same rhythm it works. If you don’t it doesn’t. Even in huge crowds, you will walk amongst people more easily when the rhythm is shared.

This is very clearly something cultural in the sense that it’s to do with how groups of people interact with each other. It also connects with certain types of quite deep cultural practices such as which finger you hold up to signal ‘one’, whether you dispense salt from the receptacle with one or many holes, how you use or don’t use knives, forks and spoons, how shops are organised in streets, whether basil is a food or something to repel mosquitoes, whether you cook lots of food in case guests come or just enough so as not to be wasteful, whether or not you show the soles of your feet to people, which parts of your body you cover and when, and so on.

These are a mixture of self-conscious and deeply tacit things; and some of them connect with values. They are indeed things that constitute cultural difference, and can be specific to country, religion, nation, and large cultural things like that. Yes, you can sometimes work out very broadly where people come from by the way they walk and the body language they use.

However, we need to be cautious here. As with the very deep and tacit matter of rhythms of walking in the street, all of these cultural things can be learnt by newcomers, even the deep values that some of these practices may represent. This surely means that we should not use such things to populate essentialist cultural descriptions. Whatever people might think of such things in terms of how they define themselves, this is a matter of choice rather than a confinement. I might define myself, my identity, everything about myself by what sort of clothes I wear. But that’s my choice; and I can always change my mind, change how I define myself.

However, saying that this is a large culture thing might just be a convenience – a framing that we have got used to because of methodological nationalism. There are other things. I personally get the same sort of feeling of disjuncture when reading British tabloid news items – when I just cannot understand the logic of the flow and ordering of information and story line. After no longer having a senior administration position for a year, I get the same feeling when trying to read university management documents. Recently I couldn’t get past the first line. And of course throughout my university career I’ve found the same thing trying to communicate with other departments, where there are clearly different discourses that carry different narratives that can make communication difficult.

Of course, in the latter cases, I would learn the different rhythms to get the job done. Learning other discourses to work with people across boundaries is an important part of being effective. You don’t need prior descriptions of their ‘cultures’; you just need to understand how discourses and how they carry narratives operate. A basic sociology of knowledge. A basic sociology of small culture formation on the go.

Perhaps I got a lot of this understanding doing sociology at university. I would imagine that studying literature or media – and others – might also have done this. Given good teachers perhaps. Or perhaps being an outsider during childhood – always looking in to try and work out what was going on around me. But this didn’t prevent me from falling into awful traps of prejudice when I first went to Iran. Is there a problem with so-called intercultural awareness training when it focuses on cultural products rather than the common workings of social processes? Just a query.

Returning to the conference in Venice, the main delegates were Japanese teachers. I have never been with so many Japanese people in one place before. The most important thing to note, in my view, was that after a very short time I was just with conference delegates. Even though I couldn’t understand overheard conversations, I could sense a lot of what groups of teachers and researchers were thinking, talking about, noting down and so on. I was lucky enough to have an interpreter. When she told me some key things about what was happening in Japanese medium presentations, there was so much that was familiar.

One of the Italian colleagues I met there who was learning Japanese told me that she found the characters liberating. Sometimes we can appreciate rhythms which, though foreign, speak to us in ways that make us find something new about ourselves. Perhaps we can also enliven these rhythms with those that we bring with us.

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