Just the other day I got a kiss and congratulations on an arguably un-momentous occasion: the purchase of a new car. The kudos came from the guy who keeps watch in our parking garage. He came out of his booth, gave me a big smile and warm felicitaciones. It was a genuine sentiment and made my day, not because I thought congrats were in order, but because he did. That is just the kind of person he is—the “to be” kind rather than the “to do” kind. He’s Paraguayan. A few years ago he shaved his prematurely thinning hair and actually looks much better as a bald guy. He wears nice clothes and is always in a good mood. What he does (sit in a booth in a dingy parking garage) in no way defines who he is.
My first exposure to life in a “to be” culture was in Spain. After moving there, the more people I met, the more it became apparent that nobody was asking the standard ‘What do you do?’ question. Ever. They asked about how I liked the food (Spaniards loooove to talk about food), why we had decided to move there, how the kids were adapting, if I had tried the gambas yet, but never ‘What do you do?’ Spaniards place you immediately in their own social context. Which, by the way, revolves around food. The experience of being around Argentines has been similar. Even more so than in Spain, Argentines want to know how you feel, if you miss home, your family, your friends, etc. And they are particularly keen to know your where your fútbol loyalties lie. Because for them, what team you’re on is key; for Argentines, interpersonal relationships and a sense of community are a big part of who they are. I would even venture to say that people in both these countries might consider it rude to ask about a person’s profession right away in the sense that it would be seen as a cold and impersonal question. At the very least, it feels awkward to me now to ask this question.
Googling around for interesting research on “to be” vs. “to do” cultures, I surprisingly didn’t come up with much. There’s this, which I think gives a pretty limited view of both, making “to be” cultures seem primitive and sounding straight out of an Intro to Anthropology textbook. It does at least highlight the relationship element of “to be” cultures. There are an interesting number of takes on the subject from the corporate world, tirelessly stretching its tentacles into all fields. None of this, however, speaks about the “to dos” and “to bes” in everyday terms, how living in a society that is one or the other shapes how people interact. And act. Personally, I think it is more on the micro-level that being and doing become more relevant and meaningful in different cultures. After all, most people in Argentina and Spain are certainly career-minded and can speak at length about their professions in certain contexts; however, they don’t generally refer to what they do (i.e., their jobs) when introducing themselves. In fact, I kind of take issue altogether with the English usage of ‘what do you do?,’ which really means ‘what is your job?,’ on the grounds that we all do many things in our lives. It just doesn’t translate well.
I recently heard someone say, “What you do defines who you are.” I would argue that it is who we are that defines what we do, and furthermore that one should be careful in uttering cultural maxims as if they were universal truths. The cultural relativity of what exactly makes us who we are is the only true universal here. For example, here are some lower-case “to dos” from my southern upbringing, which supposedly shaped my character: Saying yes ma’am = respectful of one’s elders. (I really wasn’t.) I can’t tell you how annoying it is every time I now visit Virginia and get yes ma’amed all the time from people of all ages. It makes me feel like I’m 80; it also evokes a visit to the parrot cage at the zoo. Writing thank-you notes = sufficiently grateful. I always thought the genuinely uttered words were sufficient. It was assumed that forming these habits would bestow these qualities upon us. Honestly? All it really bestowed was perfunctory, meaningless behavior that, if not acquired, was basic grounds for judgment being passed on your character. Not that I have anything against thank you notes when one is just overflowing with gratitude for that $20 bill in the greeting card, but guess what? Nobody does that in the other places I’ve lived. So are they therefore all scandalously ungrateful for their birthday presents?
Actually Argentines give enormous importance to birthdays, especially the party aspect. The presence of their closest friends and family is the most important thing. There are gifts of course, but they are very secondary to the social gathering and often opened after everyone leaves, so there’s no way of even knowing who gave you what. Ergo, no thank-yous; the material part of it is an afterthought. There is however something that people do that is always surprising to me. Friends and family members who cannot be present call to personally wish happy birthday and ask how your day is going. Especially amongst family, if this phone call is overlooked, the birthday person will get offended. It’s kind of like the thank-you note requirement, except the outcome is not a judgment on anyone’s character. People are just genuinely hurt that you didn’t remember, that you forgot to be there for them. It’s the being there emotionally that matters, not just the lip-service.
The reduced number of little “dos and don’ts” in these cultures of course makes for less polite, more unruly, louder and unrestrained interactions among people on an everyday basis. (I invite you to watch fights among taxi drivers at rush hour here.) However, I don’t notice the bitingly judgmental nature of “to do” societies in people here. Furthermore, not being constantly asked what you do for a living is liberating in that you are free to describe yourself in any terms and not limited to the label of your profession or lack thereof. I paint, I write, I travel, I raise my children, I work. (I have a friend who refuses to be labeled professionally; when he has to fill in official documents, he writes Worker in the blank by Profession even though he holds a Ph.D.) Not having to adhere to the constraints of certain “dos and don’ts” means you are free to act based on who you are and what you believe. If I am a generous person, I will give to others naturally; if I am not, dumping my old clothes at Caritas or Good Will does not make me generous. However, even if I am not a generous person, perhaps I am a good listener or a great teacher or even a hero. So don’t judge me based on the small things I don’t do.
My garage attendant’s name is Christian. In addition to being a nice guy, he is also a huge fan of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano and can talk at length about his books on Latin American history. He’s always reading something. Imagine if I had met Christian at a dinner party and started our conversation with ‘What do you do?’