Saturday, August 23, 2008

Afraid to leave your corner?

Recently I was listening to an American radio broadcast concerning the olympics. There was mention of the Hungarian swimmer László Cseh. Now I live in Hungary and I know that Hungarian speakers pronounce this name like the English word "check," but without the "k" at the end. But the American announcer instead saw "Cheh" and pronounced it like the English word "say." This brought to mind a college philosphy teacher who pronounced the family name of the German poet philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as "Nee-chee." And she was not alone. In English, it seems, words don't end with a soft "e." So when a foreign word is encountered that does end this way, the response is "don't go there," and find a way to pronounce it that feels more comfortable within the frame of conventional English pronounciation.

Many Hungarians do something similar when they encounter the English consonant combination "th." Some Hungarians pronounce the English word "thing" as if it were "sing." Others pronounce it "ting." But few are familiar with the position of the tongue in such a way as to produce the English "th." And those who are, don't like it. It isn't comfortable. It's weird. It has no place in their corner of the universe they call Magyarország - "Mawjarorsaag."

It's uncomfortable for most people to slip into unfamiliar pronounciations for probably a few reasons. One is that they simply aren't used to it. Like riding a bicycle takes time to learn. Once you're used to it, it comes as second nature. But a more interesting disconcernation people encounter when approaching unfamiliar prounounciations is reluctance, even fearful reluctance. They are reluctant to change. This taste of a physically different corner of reality where different pronounciations are required can be bitter. If I'm suddenly required to say words that end with a soft "e," what else will they demand of me? What if I'm incapable? What if it involves sexual perversity? I'm just fine back home where I know how to do things. Please! I'd rather stay home.

Such discomfort also pervades many of us when we encounter other aspects of foreign living. My first year in Hungary I got to know a young woman and we took a romantic liking to one another. But she had a boyfriend and I made it clear to her that according to the values I was used to, ones that made sense to me, I couldn't get romantic with a woman who was in a relationship with another man. I later learned that prevailing values in Hungary are different. That the preferred form of romance is between people who are otherwise involved. And this preferred romantic encounter should be kept secret from the "official" relationship partners, i.e. boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives. Yep. That's how it is here.

Today my sense is that Hungarians live in a world where rules, even laws, do not carry the respect they did for me as an American. There may be a growing cynicism among Americans about the "rule of law," but in general I suspect it is thought by most Americans that if you obey the laws of the land you can prosper. In fact, following them helps to enable prosperity. In Hungary, I've found, rules, laws, are more widely perceived as barriers to prosperity. Tax laws have a speical place in this manner of thinking. So the modus operandi for many if not most Hungarians is not to follow the rules, but rather to violate them without getting caught and punished. Why, after all, would someone follow a rule or a law if the consequence of doing so is unwanted?

According to the values I arrived with here 16 years ago, one followed laws and rules for the benefit of greater society. For Hungarians this would make little sense. To them, "greater Hungarian society," is a myth that was destroyed with the treaty of Trionon when Hungary (or at least that portion of the Hapsburg Empire that was identified as Hungary) lost two-thirds of its territory at the close of WW1. Claims to that myth today are to be suspected. In a society hardened by widespread cynicism, laws and rules are viewed as tools of power for the purpose of exploiting others. After all, people in power do not have to follow these laws and rules! And the powerful only bother to enforce them when they have something to gain from it, such as the schadenfreude of watching a perceived enemy suffer. Or as a means to survive, to feed one's family. But to obediently follow rules or laws as a means to promote social harmony and to benefit "greater Hungarian society?" Grow up! Dream on! Dat's somesing dat just doesn't happen. No here in Magyarország.

I thought of all this while doing some research in an unnamed country outside Central Europe for an unnamed client. Research techniques that have worked in this part of the world, such as asking questions about someone of people who know him have often worked just fine here and have drawn little sense of discomfort to the people being asked. They disclose what they feel is safe or perhaps useful to disclose and they withhold what they feel they should for the sake of their own well-being. They certainly don't mention to anyone that they have been questioned. The consequences of that could be unpleasant. People in former communist countries are accustomed to a great deal of uncertainty in their lives. This produces stress, no doubt. But they've learned to live with stress, it's familiar, even comfortable. So there's nothing that unusual about a stranger ringing them up and asking questions about their boss. In this unnamed country, however, it was strange and uncomfortable for many of these people when my associate did just this. And they very quickly rang up their boss' office and complained about it. (Here the first assumption on the part of many would be that it was their boss' office who had made the calls in the first place to test their loyalty. So much is uncertain! It's best to assume the worst.) Next came a call to me from their boss' lawyer telling me how unprofessional I was.

How refreshing! How refreshing it is to learn that I've lived so long in centralEASTERN Europe that I've adopted the local mentality. How refreshing to be reminded that this mentality is not universal. A thing is not everywhere a sing!

It is tempting to say that my lesson from all of this is to be more straightforward in my research. My initial reaction is that in some parts of the world where subterfuge is the norm, then it's the only way to go. But no. I will be more straightforward. "I'm an independent reseacher calling on behalf of clients interested in doing business with you.

"Would you mind answering a few questions?"

And start at the top. They'll very likely give a response. And it may well be the response I need. This is how I'll do it from now on.


Post a Comment

<< Home