Reflections on a cultural code

Last week I made an unexpected observation on cultural differences. As you know the 8th of March was International Women’s Day and as you might know in Eastern Europe and especially post-Soviet countries this day is celebrated with gifts and flowers. A friend of mine, mother of two sons, on that day had to buy flowers for all the girls of their class. This made me wonder how do you go about traditions which in your perception seem senseless, but if you don’t follow them, you risk becoming an outcast? You see that friend of mine also didn’t get the point of the “exercise”, yet if she wouldn’t have bought those flowers, that would make her sons look bad.

Social pressure. Should you succumb to it if it is about traditions?

But what if the tradition is essentially wrong, ‘cos, hey, flowers are not the point of this day? These are thought-provoking questions as such. However, when I went on to investigate “public opinion” on this matter I was struck with the cultural differences it highlighted.
What I did was posting the same question in two female expat groups: an English-speaking one and a Russian-speaking one. You should have seen how strikingly different the discussion went!

Ladies in the Russian-speaking group while making some comments on the senselessness of giving flowers individually were generally OK with the fact itself. Even more so: some were even stressing the importance of keeping this tradition alive. To be fair there were also some individual voices calling to look into the fundamental idea of International Women’s Day, but even they, I believe, wouldn’t have been offended or feel awkward should they receive flowers themselves.

The sentiment of the English-speaking group was totally different, to say the least. Many would actually feel offended! I think only one person (still of Eastern European origin) said she liked the flower-tradition and is pleased that even in Belgium in some places it is observed. The majority suggested instead of flowers for girls to bring books or show videos about the rights of girls or famous women in history, to lecture kids on equality issues and existing problems feminists are fighting for. It was not a discussion on the senselessness of the “exercise”, it was all about using this moment to raise awareness for the problems women are facing in all the aspects of their life, be it personal or career related. One lady even stressed that giving flowers makes her shiver a bit as it is like: “there there dear, don’t worry about pay gaps, domestic violence etc etc… here have some lovely tulips”… According to her (and highly appreciated by many discussion participants) it shouldn’t be about small tokens of appreciation for women, but about the issues that women face, what they’ve overcome and so on.

So as you see what I intended as a discussion on social pressure turned out to be something completely different. In one group it mainly went about practicalities and more efficient ways of organizing (traditional) celebrations; while in another it turned to be a discussion about underlying societal problems. One group perceived the flower-giving tradition as maybe not obligatory, but definitely nice; another – as offensive and awkward. Cultural differences?

Thus, what started as me wondering about the social pressure and traditions, turned into me wondering about the cultural frame, cultural differences and my own position on this “cultural spectrum”. To note that my own perception and attitude has changed quite a bit since I moved to Belgium, yet I am still somewhat culturally caught in the middle. On the particular example of International Women’s Day I wouldn’t be offended by flowers (but I do see their redundancy and would anyway have preferred chocolates instead). Then again, ten years ago while still living in my home country, I would have expected to receive flowers following the… tradition. Not anymore. Is it that I already stepped away from my “cultural roots”, but haven’t reached my “new cultural reality”? Possible. But I must admit I do feel much more affinity with the mindset of my current home rather than with that where I come from. This makes me wonder also:

how much do we change when we move abroad and do we always do?

Anyway, it was an interesting discussion in both groups, which for me triggered a lot of thoughts and questions mainly about my own cultural code.

And… damn, how different we all are!…

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