Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Society - Obsessed With Guilt

Ten years ago, when I lived in Korea, a friend shared with me his observations about the differences between Occidental and Oriental cultures. One of the most important, he noted from his experiences working with various corporations, is that in the West, when there is a problem of some kind, the first thing people do is try and establish who is to blame for the problem. In the East, the first thing they do is try and fix the problem. In general, people have faith that the one responsible will not only be aware of their culpability, but will also be conscious that others will be aware of it too. And it wasn't until my Asian friend pointed this out to me that --in my experiences over there-- I recognized it to be true.

That's not the case in Europe and the Americas. An anecdotal example of this happened to me just this past Friday at work. I showed up on my day off in order to collect some papers and prepare a fax that needed to be sent for my visa application. Unfortunately, my boss, who never works on Fridays, had failed to leave two very important papers. I informed the secretary of the problem, adding that it was urgent that this fax be sent out that very day. And, instead of looking through the files to find the necessary papers, she began asking me why I didn't make sure the boss had left the papers for me.

Feeling somewhat on the defensive, I mentioned the list of three items I'd given the boss, that it was very clear and that it was she who had only provided one of these items. "Yes, but why didn't you make sure of this yesterday?" the boss' right-hand woman insisted. It went back and forth like this for a long minute: Me claiming that I had done what was necessary and her asking the same question over and over.

It was aggravating, and I took a long breath to keep my cool. This was going nowhere, so I decided to change tack. I pointed out that whatever happened --or failed to happen-- the previous day was in the past and not relevant now. More important was the fact that these papers are missing and that we needed them at that very moment. "This is what we should be thinking about now," I added with finality.

She blinked, somewhat disconcerted. Then, after a pause, she said, "Yes, but why didn't you take care of this yesterday?"

Now, I'm a passionate man, but I recognize that in difficult moments this passion can cause me to act like a prick. So, experience has taught me to curb my reflexes and not go on the attack. At least, that is, when I want or need something from my nemesis. Thankfully I was able to suppress whatever words were clawing to escape my throat. But in moments like these, when that surge of anger and adrenaline make my face burn and my eyes rattle, when the room itself seems to tremble, it's impossible for me to be completely silent. A quick mental calculation chose a self-effacing yet sarcastic response: "Because I'm stupid. Okay? Is that what you want to hear?"

I thought it was benign enough. But she didn't. The end result was an emotional rant from an unstable secretary, no aid in securing the papers, and a wasted 6 months of aggravating preparation for this moment. Not only that, but my boss runs the risk of paying a €30,000 fine for having an undocumented employee. This is what happens when irrelevant pursuits get the best of us.

Perhaps it's all the Judeo-Christian crap that is our inheritance, this Jonathon Edwards bullshit that invests so much importance on culpability. But, criminy, what a senseless waste of thought and energy. One could say that the secretary where I work is a jerk, or was just in a bad mood or whatever. But if you think about it, she behaved very typically for people in Europe and the Americas. If she were a person who had behaved in the opposite manner, by leaping on the problem and trying to solve it rather than establishing who was responsible for the mess, she would be remarkable for having an enlightened character. Yet, in the East, such enlightenment is more the rule than the exception.

We have a lot to learn over here.

1 comment:


Good story ... Two words :
Dale Carnegie