Monday, April 19, 2010

Yes, yes, yes

One cultural quirk of the sierra that I'm still getting used to is the way in which people communicate with one another, especially when making requests. Quite simply, it is considered rude to turn down one’s request to his/her face so instead people insist “yes,” “yes” “yes” that they will be there or that they can do a favor, when in reality they have no intention of following through. It is a bit of a mind game one must play and it took me a while to realize that when people agree to do something it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll do it. I’m from a culture which, by contrast, it’s considered rude not to follow through on your word. We tend to label people who don’t show up for things as “flakey,” or that they “blew off” an event. It’s considered a common courtesy in gringo culture to call ahead of time to notify the host or your waiting friend that you can no longer make it. Here, someone’s attendance is never guaranteed. First of all, it's socially acceptable to arrive (incredibly) late for everything and anything. Ecuador famously instituted a national campaign several years ago to make its citizens more punctual—this was enacted because the president himself was notoriously late for every meeting and event. His lateness was a source of great embarrassment for the country, especially when meeting with world leaders who are not accustomed to tardiness.

The constant “yes” which often means “no” stems from not wanting to offend the person asking the favor. This is especially true if the person making the request occupies a higher social position. As a white gringa, perceiving that the caste system is still very much in place, I’m seldom denied to my face any request, despite the fact that these affirmative answers don’t always lead to action. With my friends, who occupy more or less equal positions as myself, the “yes,” “yes” “yes” derives from other causes. It stems from the fact that people really do want to please me and attend certain events. Perhaps they cannot in reality, but by saying “yes,” they are showing their support and proof of their friendship. Again, in gringo culture if such a friend did not follow through on “yes” answers, the opposite would be true—he/she would not be seen as a supportive friend, but rather, a flakey friend who can’t be counted on. I do not take offense to people’s “yes” “yes” “yes” because I have learned that it’s nothing personal against me. Sometimes I get frustrated but it has forced me to loosen up about concepts of time and how events unfold. In a way it makes things more exciting because you never quite know if something will actually happen.

On a recent weekend I had plans to go camping with a group of Ecuadorian friends. First we were supposed to leave on Friday night and then on Saturday morning. Instead of telling us that he would be delayed, our ringleader kept saying “yes” “yes” “yes” I’ll pick you up within half an hour. This half an hour turned into 5-6 hours and we finally left Saturday night as it was getting dark. Our trip was shortened because we returned the next morning but I’ve learned to go with the flow. It doesn’t really matter how long we went camping, it was still fun even though it felt foreign to me that our friend couldn’t be direct with us. I felt frustrated because I waited the entire day for him when I could have been doing other things. Perhaps part of his avoidance was that he felt guilty for being so tardy. Either way, I wanted direct communication.

It is important for me to add a disclaimer to this blog entry. Obviously, this cultural quirk is a huge generalization on my part. I have plenty of Ecuadorian friends who get just as frustrated as I do by the indirect communication here. They also complain as much as I do about flakey friends who don’t follow through on their commitments (and who don’t notify them of their changes in plan). I also have Ecuadorian friends who are indeed punctual. Likewise, in my own culture, plenty of people are consistently tardy and don’t communicate directly. As an anthropologist I recognize the danger of generalizing about what I term a “cultural quirk.” I am making an informal observation that is not based on solid research. Perhaps the best evidence is the national policy implemented several years ago to enforce punctuality. Perhaps punctuality and indirect communication seem only tangentially linked but I do think they often go together. Tardiness is just one common manifestation of the “yes” “yes” “yes” syndrome, which often translates into an indirect “no” or what seems like a passive aggressive “no,” when a person arrives just as an event ends or when his/her assistance is no longer needed.

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