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Differences between countries

Aug 5, 2015

After so many years visiting Spain, it's become second nature to me to make mental comparisons of U.S. and Spanish culture. There are differences in terms of politics, eating, ways of living, and so on.  Sometimes it's the small differences that make a big impression on you.   For instance, when you ask for coffee with milk in Spain, they give you heated milk which makes the coffee taste better (but don't go by me).

Sometimes comparisons between countries are complicated by variations that exist within a country.   For instance, in Madrid during the summer, when the temperature is sometimes in the 90s,
people often add cold milk which makes the coffee (a shot or two of espresso) about room temperature.

Of course we all know about regional variations within our own countries. A visitor will have a very different impression of the U.S. depending upon whether they visit Topeka, Kansas or Seattle or NYC or a small beach town in Cape Cod. There are regional differences that include how we eat, dress, and interact with one another.

So when asking myself "What is Spain like?" or "What is the U.S. like?" I might jump directly to regional descriptions:   "In the northwest of Spain, they eat a lot of shellfish, and the people tend to be unpretentious," or, "In the bible belt of the U.S. there are a whole lot of churches."

But surely we can say something about a country that generalizes across the regional differences.  Similarly, we can say something about a person, even though their moods and behaviors can vary over time. Jill may be often happy, and sometimes sad; often relaxed, but sometimes stressed; often tidy but sometimes a mess. 

When describing Jill, you might look for characteristics that hold true across these variations. Perhaps when she is happy, sad, relaxed, or stressed , or in some other state, she is always kind, or always insightful.  With an attribute that holds true across the variations, you might arrive at her more "essential" qualities.  So too, the things that are true about a country in spite of regional variations may be the fundamental ones. 

But one doesn't need to search for the fundamental characteristics that hold true across every inch of the country.  Sure, people in Madrid sometimes take their coffee with cold milk, but most of the time, in most of Spain, the milk is served hot.  The Japanese may conform more to social norms than those in the U.S. despite the fact that there are Japanese individualists and highly conformist Americans.  So another way to characterize cultural differences within a country is to pay attention to what characteristics differentiate the countries "on average", knowing full well that these characteristics will overlap to some degree.

But it is even more interesting to consider the regional variations themselves as an important aspect of what characterizes the country.  To return to sometimes-happy and sometimes-sad Jill, we notice that she's often happy when she's with friends and family, and often sad when she's away from them -- that captures something meaningful about her.  Her unusually large swings from tidiness to messiness capture something interesting about her too.  The fact that the U.S. contains progressive cities sprinkled among conservative rural areas is part of what the country is about. (It contrasts with Spain, where the most politically progressive regions are not as consistently centered in cities.) If the Spanish tend to be extroverted and joyful in the south and more introverted and reflective in the north -- that captures something about the country.  And if the Spanish people usually take hot milk with the coffee, but sometimes take it cold in the hot Madrid summers --- that's also part of the tapestry.

Countries can't easily be reduced to those characteristics that they possess in a pure form, or by their varying characteristics expressed as mean or median values.  Like people, countries are patterned tapestries. What makes them unique is often not captured by a particular attribute that's consistent everywhere in the country, but by the way their varying attributes combine with one another.