Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

There was so much to grok, so little to grok from.

— Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Simon Kuper has a lovely little piece in the weekend Financial Times today, talking about his experiences as an expatriate living in Paris these past nine years. He captures beautifully the freedom that someone living in a culture not natively their own naturally enjoys:

As an expat, you are freed from two blights that afflict people who live in their own countries: the “status dance” and the “media bubble”.

As Mr. Kuper points out, the media bubble works largely to report on and support what he calls the status dance—where everyone stands in relation to everyone else in a particular, bounded society—so they are different aspects of the same thing.

Freedom from a society's status matrix can be immensely liberating:

I can still see if someone is good-looking or nice or funny, but I don’t know what it means if they live in a certain neighbourhood or went to a certain school or know someone who is purportedly famous in France. Here, I can only dimly infer somebody’s status from their self-importance, and from the reactions of other people. I see who people look at during a conversation, whose jokes they laugh at, and I presume that’s where status lies. But I don’t care.

Nobody in Paris knows if I have status either (though they can probably guess). I think that’s what the American writer James Baldwin meant when he said he was always grateful to Paris for the utter indifference with which it treated him.

In addition, I can testify from the time I spent in London as an expat that standing outside the defined social structure makes one that much more approachable by those within it. The Brits have a well-earned reputation for being highly sensitive to class and status, and they are stereotyped as extremely reluctant to socialize outside the tight circle of friends and acquaintances they grew up with. Yet my family found most locals friendly and approachable, and we developed lasting friendships with a number of British families. Of course, it's easy to overstate this: the majority of friends we made during our stay were non-American expats, rather than Brits or other American families. It's just easier for everyone involved to establish new relationships when there are no status preconceptions or consequences on either side.

* * *

Of course, no state of social utopia can last forever. Human beings are social animals. All of us want, sooner or later, to be able to understand both our own place in society and those of the people around us. I had far more social mobility and freedom as an expat in London that I did or do in New York City, but had I stayed longer it would have dissipated. Novelty wears off. Most people prefer, over time, to discard the frisson of intercourse with the unranked and free-floating and replace it with a settled view of just exactly where everyone belongs in the social structure. I am somewhat amazed Mr. Kuper seems to have avoided this for nine years, although he may simply have become marginalized in Parisian society in ways even he is not aware of.

Newly formed social groupings follow the same dynamic. The beginning is all freedom and lack of restraint, high talking to low, strange talking to stranger. It is very exciting and liberating at first, if a bit unsettling. But sooner or later members sort themselves out, and social interactions become routinized according to proclivity, preference, and rank. Status emerges as a—if not the—dominant organizing principle of any social group, and people behave accordingly. You can see it happen to incoming freshman classes at university, new recruits at large corporations, and military inductees. You can even see such principles driving the evolution of online virtual communities like Facebook and Twitter.

It's all a bit sad, really, at least for us novelty junkies. But the social niceties must be observed.

Or so Mother told me.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.