Tuesday, December 6, 2016

free normative lunches

Lots of social norms are arbitrary (kiss or shake hands) and lots are obvious encouragement to contribute to public goods (don't double park) and there's no great, comprehensive model of which norms should arise in a given society, but any model I would consider credible would predict that if public good is free to contribute to, a norm will dictate that you should.

Apparently I would be wrong.

Speaking in generalities (as always), Chileans are ... not the most polite. Not like the Italians, who seem to be impolite even by their own definitions, but definitely impolite by German or even American definitions. The most obvious difference is that the concept of proactively getting out of the way doesn't exist. If you say permiso, they'll always move (albeit grudgingly if it's a crowded subway), but walking down the sidewalk is like an endless chicken series; I always lose and weave through so I have no idea how right of way is negotiated usually... a bit like bumper cars, I can only imagine.

The obvious explanation would be that conscientiousness of this sort is not zero cost and Chile is simply in the noncooperative equilibrium. It seems more efficient to choose the everyone-habitually-cooperates-and-socially-punishes-noncooperation-to-maintain-the-equilibrium equilibrium, but inefficient norms abound so that's not a mystery.

But in some situations I just can't imagine that the cost isn't zero! In one instance (only the most clearcut, but a thousand subtle variations prove it wasn't a singular bitchy woman) someone was standing squarely in the middle of a doorway, and I walked up to her and stopped right in front of her, obviously wanting to go through. There was nowhere else for me to go, no one else around, and although she was talking to her friend down the hill, she looked right at me and still didn't scoot six inches to the side so I could pass. This was shortly after I arrived in Chile for my first longish stay*, so I was too confused to gather enough wits to string any Spanish together, so I ljust ooked over my shoulders and turned in a circle trying to figure out what was going on, but nope, nothing. Luckly she left on her own volition around then and spared me further embarrassment.

If this is a phenomenon, it's strange that I can't think of other examples of this (although most costless cooperative actions at least require paying attention, like merging to the right when not passing). So which is it? 1) I'm culturally blind to other zero-cost public goods that aren't provided and the true model of norm selection needs to explain these, or 2) I'm culturally blind to hidden cost of taking a step to the left?

* I'm currently in Chile for two months visiting my wonderful coauthor Rosario Macera at PUC Santiago.

7 comments:

JohnRaymond said...

I'm just taking a wild guess, but have you considered whether other people, especially the natives, experience the same things you do? If not, I would guess the Chileans have a different attitude toward you the blond from up north, etc.

Nicholas Ma said...

Could there also be some sort of social purpose for these mild forms of noncompliance? Perhaps to look powerful and assertive to bystanders, or to feel powerful and assertive in a more internalized way.

Vera L. te Velde said...

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Vera L. te Velde said...

Oh great, blogger has been not saving my own comments because of some third party cookie requirement BS that doesn't even give you an error message... But I think I found a fix. Anyway Nick yeah that's an interesting idea. From my outsider perspective it really seems like there's neither any expectation that others might move out of your way nor any realization that doing so might be appreciated, but maybe there is a subtext I don't see. I should really ask around but it seems like an awkward thing to ask :)

Dad yeah that's also possible but I really doubt it because it's clearly happening among Chileans as well and people are really nice to me overall (although I get stared at). Anyone who speaks English wants to practice with me, I get warned to be careful with my camera/phone constantly, etc.

kevin said...

I'll first note that the situation you described would be very familiar to minorities in the deep south during the jim crow era. It wasn't that there was a cost to moving a step. It was that there was a benefit to making you feel unwanted. I'd bet that's what is going on here as some of the other posters mention. The fact that some of the population wanted to practice english with you doesn't say anything about the rest of the population. They may see you as an outsider disturbing their way of life. You are to, some degree, disturbing their way of life if their neighbors are taking time learning English.

Vera L. te Velde said...

kevin, yeah to the extent it was due to my being a visible outsider I completely believe that. I'm quite sure similar norms (maybe to a different degree) apply among chileans as well though.

Vera L. te Velde said...

but, allegedly socioeconomic status etc is very evident visually to native chileans as well, and since socioeconomic status is so incredibly variable in Chile, I wonder if that causes most interactions between strangers to be between different perceived groups...