Both figuratively and literally, this blog post was difficult to write. Figuratively, because it looks at some difficult and discouraging aspects of Albanian culture that I (and some of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers) find frustrating and often dispiriting. Literally, because the things I discuss here are so illusive — so difficult to describe — that I have a hard time finding the right words and forming my thoughts. This post was also difficult to write because a lot of it relies on generalizations (tendencies, averages, trends) and generalizations can be problematic. To account for exceptions — and to stay out of stereotype territory — I ask that, as you read, you insert the words “in general” liberally so that I don’t have to.
Albania’s Communist Legacy
Albania is a country in transition. After five centuries of Ottoman rule (the country declared its independence only in 1912), Albania bounced from one despotic leader to the next until Communism fell in 1991. The country’s history is one of occupation, repression, and hardship. Where America’s DNA contains a healthy dose of self-determination, Albania’s is a mirror image, built on the rational mentality that “to go along is to get along.”
The worst thing about Communism is what comes after.”
And now Albania is attempting a transition to democracy — to economic, political and social freedom. For generations Albanians dreamt about these freedoms, but now they find themselves struggling to achieve them. The reasons why are complex and multi-layered but I believe two important factors are direct effects of the country’s history : 1) Albanians have no prior experience with democracy and 2) their cultural DNA is programmed more for inertia than initiative.
Adam Michnik, a former Polish dissident and now newspaper editor, said, “The worst thing about communism is what comes after.” Manuel Montobbio, the former Spanish ambassador to Albania, says, “In a totalitarian state, the autocrat’s vocation is to….write the script for everything that happens, including what individuals do. In an open society, we all get to write the script for the play we are performing in,” but then goes on to say, “It can be often more convenient to have the written script for your everyday play, and no responsibility to decide for yourself, than to make the effort of being creative and responsible.” An American colleague at USAID talks about the current situation in Albania as “the Communist Hangover.”
Digression: The Cultural Iceberg
Worldwide, Peace Corps Volunteers learn — ad infinitum and sometimes ad nauseum — about the Cultural Iceberg (shown below). For those of you who have never seen the Cultural Iceberg, the idea is this: when in an unfamiliar culture, we observe many foreign behaviors and practices. Our brains naturally try to find explanations for the behaviors, but without an understanding of the culture’s deeper core values (for example, concepts of time, justice, loyalty, beauty, gender/age roles, courtesy, and so on) we can’t accurately and empathically interpret what we’re seeing. And, without an understanding of the root-level formative factors, we can’t understand the reasons for the core values that drive the behaviors.
So, why am I telling you this? Because what follows below is a discussion of the symptoms of the Communist Hangover (the exposed part of the iceberg) and I think it’s important to understand both the core values causing the symptoms and how deeply rooted they are.
Earlier I used the words “frustrating” and “dispiriting.” For Americans, living and working in Albania can be frustrating and the descriptions below may sound like glib anecdotes about those frustrations. But that’s not my goal. Rather, I am attempting to describe behaviors that make sense in the context of Albania’s history but are dispiriting to experience because they betray deeply rooted cultural norms that work against the progress Albania is trying to achieve.
Speak Up, I Can’t Hear You
It wasn’t until I got to Albania that I came to understand how assertive Americans are. Of course I knew that Americans are assertive, but I didn’t understand how assertive. More important, I didn’t realize the extent to which our assertiveness contributes to the near-constant improvement of systems and conditions in the U.S. When Americans don’t like something they say so; when something doesn’t work, Americans speak up. Americans write petitions, lobby their representatives, boycott companies/products and organize protests. At a much more micro-level, they return unsatisfactory purchases to stores, call customer service 800-numbers, put suggestions in suggestion boxes and post reviews on Yelp. We may even — embarrassingly — whine, complain and demand. But, the net result of American assertiveness is that people and institutions are held to account and (reminder: insert “in general” here) things change and improve.
Not so in Albania. For the most part, Albanians don’t complain to people in authority. They don’t speak up and inform “the system” (whatever that system might be) that something is broken or never worked to begin with — and Albania is full of things that don’t work, don’t work correctly, break easily, etc. Albanians will talk among themselves, but they don’t speak truth to power because the real or perceived consequences are unacceptable. They don’t want to get others in trouble, they fear that they will lose their jobs, they worry that they will be viewed as troublemakers, they don’t want to hurt others’ feelings or (worst of all) they fear that someone’s uncle or cousin will seek retribution with a gun. And, more often than not, they believe that asserting themselves wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
Without the willingness to speak up, how do things improve?
In the U.S. we say “you can’t fight city hall,” but we often do. In Albania, people talk among themselves, shrug their shoulders and say “what to do?” — an all-purpose Albanian expression that means “I guess I’m just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.” Another common expression is “it will be okay,” which means “let’s not discuss this any further because there’s nothing that can be done and so it would be better just to hope for the best.”
At the surface it might seem that a disinclination to complain is a good thing, but without the willingness to speak up, how do things improve? I recently read an article about a Swiss NGO that is trying to build a much needed mentality of entrepreneurship in Albania. The head of the program said, “If you’re not a critical person you don’t see problems. If you don’t see problems, that’s what a startup is all about.”
Zero-Sum Games and Other Impediments to Collaboration
One of the most pernicious remnants of Albania’s past is the zero-sum mentality “if you win, I lose.” I think, historically, this was a pretty effective framework for thinking about survival. And even now, with open borders, personal freedoms and a free-market economy Albania is still one of the poorest countries in all of Europe. There is still not enough to go around — only now it’s jobs instead of food.
But, if Albania is going to grow, thrive and ensure a better quality of life for its citizens, the inherently competitive zero-sum mentality is a real problem. Here are some of the ways this mentality manifests itself:
Knowledge is Power: In the workplace, Albanians are reluctant to share information with each other — even with people we in America would view as co-workers. In the U.S., workplace collaboration is a pretty much a given — it’s the way we get things done and advance our common workplace goals. But in a zero-sum culture, sharing information puts one at risk of being out-maneuvered by another. Out-maneuvered how I’m not sure, but, a zero-sum culture is a culture of fear and why take the risk?
Many of my Peace Corps colleagues work in municipal government offices called Bashkias. These volunteers are on the front lines of how things are done in Albania and have endless stories about important meetings announced at the last possible moment; decisions or new initiatives announced only when it’s too late to discuss, debate or refine them; and requests for data/information that are never acknowledged or fulfilled.
From personal experience, I’ve been to numerous presentations where the speaker performs a sort of information-guarding sleight of hand that I can’t do justice to it here. The first few times it happened I thought I was imagining it but now I’ve seen it enough times and compared notes with enough Peace Corps volunteers to believe my eyes and ears. Here’s what happens: the presenter speaks for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes. He/she explains the process that led to the presentation: how the information was gathered, how it was analyzed, why it’s important….but then doesn’t actually share any results. Or, perhaps he/she shows some results — a map, a chart, a graph– but doesn’t discuss what it says or what it means. I remember a joke from my childhood where someone is reading a telephone book and says something like, “lots of characters but no plot.” That’s how I feel at these presentations: lots of details and chronology, but there’s rarely a payoff.
Lack of Knowledge is Stupidity: I’m pretty sure that the expression “the only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask,” doesn’t exist in Albania. In a perceived zero-sum world, letting on that you don’t know or don’t understand could result in someone getting the upper hand. Then add the fact that Albanian teachers are quick to publicly shame their students for “ignorance” and you realize that, from a young age, people in Albania learn that it’s better just to smile, nod and feign understanding. A few weeks ago I was at a conference where representatives from five of Albania’s largest cities presented their work-in-progress urban plans to planners from municipalities that haven’t yet begun to work on their plans. During the Q&A I was surprised that no one asked questions and mentioned it to a co-worker who also attended the event. The co-worker — an Albanian — said, “It’s typical; no one asks questions because they are afraid to look ignorant in front of the others. They have questions but they don’t ask.”
Fear of being wrong is also one of the reasons why so many of the presentations I see have (as discussed above) “lots of characters but no plot.” Presenting results, opinions or conclusions leaves one open to possible criticism and so it’s safer not to take a stand and, instead, focus on how the work was done (process rather than results).
Flattery Will Get You Nowhere: In an environment where people instinctively believe “if you win, I lose,” compliments and positive reinforcement can backfire. I once told an Albanian woman how impressed I was with some of her co-workers — how bright and hardworking they were. My goal was to compliment the organization as a whole, but as I said positive things about the others I could see her face fall and she quickly cut me off, responding with defensiveness and telling me all the ways that she was also an asset to the organization.
….the positive comments resulted in a smear campaign against the teacher…
Earlier this week, I met a school principal who is attempting a variety of changes at her school, including an end to in-class corporal punishment. Several months ago she introduced a UNICEF-developed approach to disciplining students that some teachers have adopted and others have not. In a faculty meeting, hoping to set a bar for the other teachers, she called attention to a teacher who was having particularly good results with the new program. The principal told me that she would “never make that mistake again” because the positive comments had resulted in a smear campaign against the teacher. Among the rumors: the teacher had bribed the principal to say good things about her.
The Paradox of Individualism vs. Collectivism
According to the Hofstede scale of individualism vs. collectivism, the U.S. scores a 91 on individualism while Albania (like China) scores only a 20. Theory tells us that, as an individualistic culture, the U.S. values personal achievement over group goals while, in a collectivist culture, the needs of family and community trump those of the individual. When I Google “collectivist culture” here are some of the other descriptors that show up:
- Each person is encouraged to be an active player in society, to do what is best for society as a whole rather than themselves.
- Working with others and cooperating is the norm; everyone supports each other
In contrast, individualistic cultures are described as having “much less of a drive to help other citizens or communities.”
I admit that I don’t know much about the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures — it’s a topic I’ve never studied in any depth. It seems natural, though, to assume that Albania — a country rated only 20 on individualism — would be likely to embody behaviors that serve the collective good. But, paradoxically, that’s not what I observe. Some examples:
One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Problem: Albanians have a real penchant for cleanliness: homeowners and shopkeepers are constantly mopping floors and shining windows. My landlady mops the stairs in our building multiple times each day and washes down the sidewalk in front of our house every morning. There are stores in Tirana where, in addition to the shopkeeper, there is a woman (never a man!) whose sole job it is to keep shiny surfaces shiny. Yet, just beyond the gate or the front stairs you will find all manner of trash: plastic bags, plastic bottles, candy wrappers, snack bags, cardboard, miscellaneous garbage. This is as true in Tirana as it was when I lived in the little farming village of Shushice. There are some very real issues in Albania about how to manage trash, but my point here is that concerns about cleanliness appear to stop at the property line.
It Takes a Village….: Albanians will be the first to tell you that their school systems need improvement, yet it is virtually impossible to get parents involved in their kids’ schools and teachers balk at the prospect of engaging in work beyond what’s mandated (for example, after-school activities/clubs). The principal I mentioned earlier is trying to build a “community” within her school — a sense of shared purpose around supporting and enriching the students — but, with the exception of a handful of parents, she is unable to foster interest or involvement. A few months ago, I spoke to a group of soon-to-be English teachers studying American culture. Their textbook stresses the “fierce individualism” of Americans, so it was a surprise to them hear about the many ways communities voluntarily support their schools: PTAs, school boards, fundraising, tutoring programs, extracurricular activities — none of which exist in Albania. Even if this involvement is driven by self-serving individualistic values (and I’m not sure it is), the net result not only benefits the collective good, it creates a sense of community.
I believe the zero-sum mentality functions in opposition to the idea of the collective good
I think that part of the individualism vs. collectivism paradox is about this very idea of “community” and how it’s defined. I believe that Albania is a collectivist culture, but one where the collective is defined by family ties. I think that, within the family, Albanians readily “do what’s best for society…rather than themselves” but aren’t naturally inclined to push beyond those boundaries. In my mind, this makes sense: Albania is a collectivist culture, but, thanks to its legacy of repression, suspicion and hardship, there is a zero-sum mentality that functions in opposition to the idea of the collective good. Does this explanation hold water? I don’t know. Either way, the real dilemma is this: How will Albania solve its problems without a sense of shared purpose and shared trust and how can you create shared purpose and trust when there’s still not enough to go around?
“What is to Be Done?”
Albanians are desperate for improved quality of life*: they want government that works, businesses that are profitable, meaningful work, decent schools, paved roads, drinkable water, 24/7 electricity, competent healthcare and many of the other things that are givens in much of the U.S. and Western Europe. And yet, their cultural DNA drives behaviors that impede their ability to realize these dreams.
*The “World Happiness Report,” is a tool used by the U.N. to compare quality of life across countries. The 2016 report ranks Albania as 109th out of 157 countries; the U.S. ranks 13th.
In the years before the Russian Revolution, Lenin posed the question, “What is to be done?” with regard to energizing the working class to solve the root causes (not just the symptoms) of their problems. That same question plays in my head when I think about Albania’s Communist Hangover. On any given day it can be difficult to see how Albania is going to get from point A to point B and it’s clear that progress is going to take considerable time — maybe even several more generations of time. As noted earlier, this can be dispiriting — the glacial pace, the uncertainty about whether cultural DNA can be overcome. But, as one of my Peace Corps friends says, “If it weren’t this way, Peace Corps wouldn’t be here.”