[EXPAT VOICE] Individualism vs. the ‘all for one and one for all’ approach

[EXPAT VOICE] Individualism vs. the ‘all for one and one for all’ approach

February 18, 2010, Thursday/ 16:11:00
I was astonished when my adult Turkish students told me it is not unreasonable for a friend or neighbor to ask to borrow your car for a week. One of my students has a new car, and I was joking with him that I would like to borrow it. He said, “Yes, of course, you can borrow my new car for the day.”I playfully pressed him, “How about for two days?” He said, yes, of course, if I need his car, I could borrow it for two days. “How about for the week?” I asked, continuing to play with him. “Yes, if you really, really need it, you can borrow it for the week.”

“How about for the month?” I asked.

At that, he smiled sweetly and said maybe I should pay him a little something to use his car for that long.

I asked another student if he would house my sister when she comes for a visit. “Yes, of course,” he said.

“She will be with you for a week,” I played with him.

“Maybe then you should pay me rent if she’s going to be here a week,” he said.

I reacted in mock horror. “You’re going to charge me???”

In an English lesson on “reasonable versus unreasonable requests,” the Turks proved far more generous in thinking requests from friends, neighbors and acquaintances were reasonable and appropriate than I was. I as an American would have responded: “You must be crazy. Of course, I will not lend you [an acquaintance] my car for a week, much less a month. I might do it for a close relative or a best friend, but that’s as far as my generosity extends.” One of my Turkish students replied, “You do not know the Turkish people very well yet.”

That’s right, I replied. The Turkish people are, in my experience, the most hospitable on earth, I said. “Thank you,” my students said with pride in their voices. Hospitality to guests of their country, such as myself, they take very, very seriously. It’s not that way in America, I said, except maybe in small towns where foreigners rarely visit. “That’s because everyone in America is a guest,” explained one of my Turkish students who has visited America. True. If you go back far enough in history, nearly all Americans, except the relatively few remaining Native Americans, are immigrants, so we generally expect visitors to blend in with the rest of us, stand on their own two feet and carry their own weight.

There are other ways in which the Turkish culture is collective rather than individualistic, or that Turks take an “all for one, one for all” approach and maintain a “what’s mine is yours is ours” perspective. Businesses generally have cafeterias for employees and provide free lunches (and if you’re working late) free dinners not only for employees but for consultants and contractors. Businesses also provide buses for employees -- they pick you up in the morning and take you home in the evenings. The university my wife and I work for has a service bus that picks us and the other teachers up before each class we teach in the evenings, delivers us to the businesses where classes are to take place and picks us up after the classes are over. I really don’t need a car in Turkey. The university also provides free lunches for faculty and staff, too, so we could go days without eating a meal at home.

In America, that is unheard of. In most parts of America, except for big cities like New York and Washington with good public transportation systems, if you don’t have a car, you can forget about taking the job. An automobile is simply a requirement for living.

The kindness of strangers

Like the archetype Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ classic play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I can say that in Turkey, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I don’t worry too much about being stranded in a place where I’m lost, unable to access money and no one speaks English, because my experience tells me the Turks will take care of me. They’ll lead me by the hand to someone they know who speaks English, stay with me until I’ve found my way or even spring for the cost of a cab or bus ride until I’m able to access cash. Such hospitality “is part of our national character,” one student told me.

I’m told that it is rare for a business to fire employees in Turkey. There seems to be the collective belief that “we are team members, we are an extended family.” There seems to be high tolerance for eccentric behavior in the workplace, kind of like, “Oh, that’s just my crazy coworker,” as if that’s just my crazy sibling or cousin or uncle or aunt, someone I’m bonded to for life. Coworkers are much more likely to be treated as part of the family compared to America. In the US, new bosses frequently seek to bring in their own “team,” their own employees, kicking old employees out the door, while employees often keep their eyes out for better jobs, better deals elsewhere. Neither employers nor employees in America have the loyalty to each other that they once did.

What would it take for great hospitality and loyalty to return to America? A return to rural roots and a less mobile population? A cataclysmic economic depression, perhaps, in which many people would have to give up their cars, fat salaries that allow for dining out at restaurants for lunch and large homes (most Turks live in far smaller properties)?

Even so, I’m sure we Americans would complain bitterly if we lost our great wealth and sense of individualism and were forced to “endure” riding to work with colleagues in a service bus, eating cafeteria-style lunches and dinners with them and had to cut our real estate in half and share it with others. American individualism is rooted in our history of striking out on our own as a nation of immigrants, conquering frontier after frontier, living on a huge land mass with plenty of space, blessed with wealth and material comforts, including our cherished automobiles. We’ve had to depend less on our neighbors than we might if our nation faced different economic circumstances. Our need (or desire) for personal space and boundaries is far greater than the Turks.

The Turks could teach us Americans a thing or two about the “all for one, and one for all” approach to living. Or maybe, as a result of the Great Recession, Americans are having to reclaim such values for themselves.

*Jim Buie is a freelance writer and teacher based in Kayseri. You may contact him at [email protected]