How Are We Alike? How are We Different?
Decades ago, when I was hopping from continent to continent as an international marketing executive for a large electronics manufacturer, I developed a model of human character or personality, a portrait, if you will, specifying how we are similar and how we differ. Essentially, it went like this: 70% of who we are is shared among all people, 25% is cultural, and 5% is individual. A graphic of it would look like this:
In the current era, scientists compare how close homo sapiens’ genes are to, for example, those of chimpanzees (96%), cats (90%), or bananas (50%). This is not that. This is a heuristic model of personality and behavior — soft science, at best. It was a designed to help me predict how different people would react in various circumstances around the world.
What it didn’t take into account was how each nation feels about itself. At the time, I presumed that Americans would think their own individual component was much higher than 5% — more like 75% — because of a belief in what is now called American exceptionalism. I wasn’t fooled in the least by that. Moving constantly from country to country, it was clear to me that Americans were more conformist than other cultures, where, in some cases, actual individualism was flourishing. One had only to observe café life in Paris in the 1980s to see that not everyone believed in “respectable” middleclass pursuits.
What I found useful about the model, though, was the idea or belief that more than half of who we are is shared universally. That was the most important point. Thus, I had a straight path to finding common ground with my distributors and customers in France, Venezuela, Israel, Taiwan, Holland, and elsewhere. The things we all valued — good food, reasonable health, comfortable shelter, a loving partner, pride in our children, a respectable place in society, financial security, diverting entertainment — were easy topics of conversation.
I once spent a pleasant sunset under the meandering vines of a rooftop garden in Milano Due (Milan Two, a planned development outside the original city) with my Italian distributor. He was 65 and had just married his third wife, who was in her 30s. She had borne him a son, and I enthusiastically exclaimed my way through a two-inch-thick deck of color prints depicting nothing but her and the boy. Later, we had a magnificent dinner at the Taverne de lu Gran Sasse in Milano (don’t worry, the spelling is from local dialect), featuring something like 15 courses. Our bonding that evening helped enormously in the years ahead, as, from thousands of miles apart, we negotiated equipment installations via telex (international communications before the Internet). We had drunk deeply of the universal elements of human nature.
On the cultural side, I also appreciated what Italy had to offer. Who would think to serve nuts after the cheese but before the fruit? It all worked great. My only rule about trying new food was someone else had to eat it, too. No fooling me into eating goat’s eyeball or whole octopus just because I’m from out of town! I found the differences between cultures, languages, histories, values, and political systems fascinating. Always a student of culture, I became more of one during this period.
I noticed that most of the internationals were multilingual. Only the North Americans — who were manifesting, even then, various signs of manifest destiny — spoke English alone. I once heard the Anglo wife of our Toronto-based Canadian distributor express the thought, with respect to French Canadians: “We won the war. They should speak English!” But everyone in the Belgian office spoke three or four, always including English (the language of business), but also French, German, and perhaps a local tongue, like Walloon, as well. My Italian distributor had mastered eight. It took some time actually living in Europe, but eventually, I managed to become fluent in French, acquire a working knowledge of German, and develop reading proficiency in Russian. When I got back to the United States, I found that not one company seemed to value international cultural knowledge. The common refrain was, “They all have to speak English. So, why should we bother?” This attitude seemed parochial to me and was likely the result of both the isolation and commercial power of the United States at the time.
The important point, it seemed to me, was to recognize and appreciate cultural difference. I often found myself, like some ex officio diplomat, in the position of explaining to foreigners just what it was that our crazy government was doing (even back then!). And I loved hearing, for example, from the Venezuelans about Simón Bolívar, the man who liberated much of northern South America from the Spanish, formed a union of independent South American states, ran most of them, and gave his name to the country of Bolivia, the Venezuelan and Bolivian currencies, numerous plazas, statues, a peninsula in Texas, a county in Mississippi, and towns in four other states. These days in the United States, even recognizing a cultural difference — such as the Redness or Blueness of a state — is a fraught endeavor, whereas back then, I reveled in the cultural differences among everyone.
Finally, there’s the much overrated (by us) individual component. Of course, everyone is unique, and these differences are sometimes quite interesting, but we can’t all be a Marie Curie, John Lennon, or Gertrude Stein. Most of us are fairly ordinary, despite how the recognition of that fact might make us feel. Just as with individual rights and the common good, there is a balance to be struck between our sense of our own uniqueness and our understanding of how much we share with others.
“Otherness” is something we can celebrate, explore, understand, and empathize with. It’s “le sel de la vie,” as the French put it. I’m not sure how we get from where we are now — highly polarized and extremely sensitive about slight differences among us — to a place where we recognize those differences frankly and enjoy them as just another flavor of humanity. Nonetheless, I do think we need to try to find the “we” in us.