Rendahl: Sticky People

By: Kristi Rendahl

Thu, Jun 16 2011

A friend of mine describes many non-Western cultures as being
“sticky.” Sticky people don’t recognize arbitrary boundaries of
personal space. They assume carte blanche to invade, intrude, and
otherwise insert themselves into any given situation, whether with
family or a perfect stranger, and everyone expects it. No matter how
you slice the world-East and West, or North and South-this illustrates
a profound difference in how people interact.

Sticky people don’t recognize arbitrary boundaries of personal space.

They assume carte blanche to invade, intrude, and otherwise insert
themselves into any given situation, whether with family or a perfect
stranger, and everyone expects it.

Armenians are a sticky people. Those I know and love, and even
those I don’t, will not silently watch a child misbehave, even if
it’s someone else’s child. They will never stop commenting on other
people’s decisions or asking all-too-personal questions. They wouldn’t
even let me go very long with a bad haircut.

I can thank them for helping me develop a thick skin. It used to
offend me (more) when people offered frank advice that implied-nay,
asserted-that I was somehow falling short. Now, I filter most comments
through the sticky concept lens.

There is my salon favorite: “Haven’t you ever considered waxing your
eyebrows?” There was the seamstress who remarked while measuring my
waist, “Nihar es yerevum, bayc ahagin tumblik es” (You look thin,
but you’re actually kind of chubby). And then there is the running
commentary from day to day on whether one looks fatter or skinnier,
uglier or prettier, tired or rested.

No doubt, people are truly concerned about each other’s wellbeing.

I’ll never forget the panic in one man’s eyes when I sat on a pile
of cold stones. He ran to my side and grabbed my arm to pull me off
the pile, saying that it would hurt my “organism” and I wouldn’t be
able to have children. Of course, if you have children, you will be
on the receiving end of all kinds of unsolicited parenting advice. And
there is not enough space in this column to describe the never-ending
rebukes for not having children at all.

It is as though sticky people are saying, “Hey, we’re trying to do
something here and we need you to conform to the project. If you’re
going to do something different, then you had better seek approval
from us first.” Or maybe they’re saying, “We care about you, we want
you to be the best that you can be, and we can tell you how.” Maybe
they’re saying both.

Shortly after arriving in Armenia in 1997, someone I knew from the
U.S. remarked about how frustrating he found it that Armenians obsessed
about their physical appearance even to walk to the village store,
while in their homes the toilets didn’t flush properly. Over time,
I came to appreciate that pride. Appearance, after all, is one of
the few things a person has some control over when everything else
is in a perpetual state of transition. I suppose that’s part of the
reason there is a salon on nearly every block of central Yerevan.

Most of the time, Armenians appear just as willing to turn a critical
eye on themselves. They regularly berate themselves for taking too
much pride in their history and not spending enough time working to
make the country better today. They bemoan the decline of the quality
of the education system. They argue that absolutely everyone is engaged
in some level of corruption and that it will lead to the demise of the
nation. And they reminisce about how people used to help one another,
but now think only of themselves.

Knowing that there is this culture of inward and external critique,
I have always been surprised by what Armenians turn a blind eye
to. The classiest camping trip I’ve been part of was with a group of
friends in Armenia. Near Garni, we spread a tablecloth on the ground,
placed proper dish settings for some 15 people, and put out food and
drink fit for a Cilician king. En route to Yerevan after the outing,
we passed trash-filled ditches, but no one said a word about it. I
asked myself, and my companions, how could this exist in the same
country as gourmet camping?

It actually angered me when I went to the ski resort one winter and
saw that the outhouse door hadn’t been closed properly before a recent
storm. A simple bent nail could have kept the door shut. Instead,
the wind had blown snow inside, and people had defecated on top of
the snow and ice-covered squat toilet. When you’ve got to go, you’ve
got to go, I guess, but I couldn’t believe that the same people who
dressed in their finest to have coffee with their neighbors, and who
all but lit candles for a camping picnic, would be able to accept this.

A friend once explained what he believes are the roots of this
inconsistency. He said that during the Soviet Union, your home began
at the front door, and nothing else was your responsibility. There
was no understanding that your home might also be your building, your
neighborhood, your city, and your country. The explanation holds water,
but then what?

Well, obviously the sticky culture has rubbed off on me since I sit
here and freely offer my insights when no one in particular has asked
for them. Go figure.

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