Knowing Where You’re From

When you go out for a coffee or drinks with friends, do you insist on paying exactly what you owe, and nothing more? If so, it might be because you’re American (or maybe you’re just a cheap bastard). And before you start conjuring up all kinds of anecdata to the contrary, consider the following – that an admittedly stylized understanding of American friendship, but one which also rings more or less true, holds that it exists on some purely personal plane as a function of your, and your friend’s, sincere and abiding mutual appreciation for each other. Introducing money would somehow corrupt or cheapen the relationship, and circumstances that could give rise to even the vague suspicion that someone might be hanging out with you just because you buy their lattes cannot be tolerated. Combine that with American emphasis on self-reliance and it’s no wonder waitstaff all over the country find themselves splitting checks 18 ways at group dinners. In other parts of the world the same norms don’t hold. You know, because they’re not American over there. In Bosnia (and much of South East Europe), for example, if you invite somebody for a coffee you’re expected to pay for theirs, too. They’ll get you the next time.

Listening to somebody else explain this difference not long ago I was struck by how normal the second approach seemed to me, and how absurd I often thought it was when friends of mine would parsimoniously count out their share of the tip down to the last few cents.* And then I realized that my coauthor seems to share my outlook and I decided our payment proclivities existed as such because his family is from Italy and mine is from Greece and therefore both of us are Mediterranean in some fundamental way that makes paying for other people’s food and drink part and parcel of consuming either with them. Of course, speaking just for myself, this is in many ways complete nonsense. I was born and raised in America, and I never pay for coffee in Greece not because other people are always inviting me out for one but because I’m always there with my  mother and there are a lot of things I won’t accept from my parents but free caffeine is not one of them.

Just a few weeks before this episode with the coffee I watched these videos and had another moment of realization. I don’t know how to dance in any useful way, but if you provide the right combination of booze and music (or the privacy of my kitchen) that won’t be much of an impediment for me. So to combat the fact that I don’t actually know what I’m doing I’ve assembled a mental repertoire of things one can do on a dance floor based on what I’ve seen out in the world. It’s populated with basically everything David Bisbal does here, a lot of stamp-y kind of foot movements, and a perhaps-excessive reliance on keeping my hands out to my sides at roughly shoulder height. The David Bisbal I blame on my friends, but seeing those clips the recognition was instantaneous – I knew exactly where the other two tendencies came from.** It was Greece. And this time it actually makes sense. As a child probably the only adults I ever saw dancing were Greek ones at the enormous Easter parties we used to go to; by the time I wound up having to come up with something myself there may not have been a whole lot else for me to draw on, subconsciously or otherwise.

But for each of these stories it’s really pretty irrelevant whether or not you credit my Greek-ness as being operative in some fundamental way. Because it’s not. Or, it matters, but only as one of the many stories we tell about ourselves as a way of locating ourselves in the world, as a way of framing and explaining our actions. And it’s the believing those stories that counts; my willingness to buy other people beers or my idiosyncratic (to put it kindly) approach to dance floors are signs of Greek-ness as long as I think them to be so. The rationalist skeptic in me says I should reject all of this; predicating behavior on vaguely-defined cultural osmosis just doesn’t seem to hold up to rigorous examination. But with that rejection (and taking the American influence for granted) all I have is being from Massachusetts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply proud to call Massachusetts home, and giving up my MA driver’s license for one from Michigan last week was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do, but the only behavior of mine being from there can explain is yelling at drivers and being good at rotaries. So I choose to believe. I like knowing where I’m from.

*Look, I am a grad student so I have zero dollars and in general I just don’t spend that much money but the thing standing between me and financial ruin is not the decision to throw in $14.77 instead of $20 to the pot after a few rounds of drinks
**Really, I did have a moment of, “Ohhhhhh, that explains it.”