Saturday, March 16, 2013

Egyptian Social Lubricant, flowing through your veins

I would like to share a few recent insights I have had about social mores here in Cairo, Egypt.

To a certain extent, one could say that it's very hard to find an Egyptian who is socially awkward. 

As I mentioned in a post about negotiations, talking and dealing with people is crucial to feeling at ease in Egypt. One must know how to "talk the talk" or "حور", get your ideas out, ask people polite questions, be friendly, easy-going, but also confidently hold your ground. This is definitely something I've gotten better at after living here for 2+ years, and definitely one of the things I love the most about Egypt (احسن ناس) :-)

So yes, Egyptians, or, Cairenes at least, are generally very friendly; if you know how to talk, or "deal" with them, they will happily talk (or deal) back (I'll get to more about the subtle difference between talking and dealing in the following paragraph).

Why is this so?

Well, a few theories we can put forth. 
First, a more pragmatic and less romantic one: population density.  Cairo's population density averages at around 42,000 inhabitants/km2 (see link, footnote on p. 272) and supposedly goes up to 100,000 inhabitants/km2 in the oldest neighborhoods. Traffic, overpopulation, informal neighborhoods lacking urban planning –Cairo has some of the highest population densities in the world. Lots of people –all looking out for their own interest– crammed up in a small space, means that everyone has to be polite and friendly in order to get along (I'm reminded of Japan here, with its strong social codes). This theory implies that this "code" of friendliness is just a "social lubricant", easing our daily "dealing" with others. Furthermore, this implies that we are not "polite just for the sake of being polite", but rather, "polite to more easily obtain what you is desired from the person in front of you" (i.e. dealing with them). And, one could argue that being polite in general (even in other countries) is just an extension of one's self-interest (while also slightly looking out for that of others). In contrast, think of the stereotypical underpopulated Wild West, where everyone had to watch their back!

Second theory: Perhaps... just perhaps... Egyptians are just super friendly people by nature and that has nothing to do with self-interest. It's possible, and I like the idea. 

Anyway, my point is, it's very rare to encounter an Egyptian who is socially awkward in a Western sense (I'm sure most foreigners would agree with me although you may not have realized it. Egyptians always have a little phrase or sentence to liven up the atmosphere) and I'd argue that this general levity with personal relationships (outside of daily interactions with strangers, that is, with family, friends, acquaintances, etc.) is a spill over from the daily need to interact with total strangers on a high intensity level due to the high population density.

Moral of the story, the more you live with people, the better you'll get at it! (and your country can have even more babies, until we all go crazy).

Also, I'd like to add something about the depth or superficiality of relationships here. To a certain extent (إلى لحد ما), one might be able to argue that while Westerners don't deal as well with each other in the streets, that the relationships that they do have are more valued and profound. In other words, people in Egypt might have less intimate friends, with whom they aren't necessarily able to talk about everything. But again, this is a very rough generalization. 

Note: do not confuse a lack of social awkwardness with not being polite. Things in Egypt are usually clear and direct. e.g. cutting in line. it's rude, but people do it quite openly and blatantly. It's rude, but not awkward. But then again, for certain types of interactions, being direct would be considered impolite.

Note #2: Foreigners watch out! Any social skills you might be lacking in a Western context could be amplified in Egypt/a foreign context!

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