Thoughts on Adaptation

It was a great movie.

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I’ve been gradually adapting to life and culture in Georgia for the better part of two years, but it seems to have hit some kind of a peak lately. People are starting to notice my picking up Georgian habits, mannerisms, and attitudes. As I think about why, I’m starting to understand the reasons behind a lot of the things about Georgia that have previously perplexed or annoyed me.

One of the things a lot of foreigners here notice and complain about is a sort of measured apathy among Georgians in the face of certain situations. Westerners come from societies in which things work a certain way, and we’re used to things working that way, and we expect things to work that way, and when things don’t work that we we’re not unaccustomed to someone making a scene until things get back to working the way we expect them to. In Georgia there is no such expectation.

That’s been one of the hardest things to really understand. In Georgia there was a long period of Soviet government followed by lots and lots of unrest, period. The current regime looks and talks a lot like a Western democratic capitalist government but no one really knows until power changes hands a few times and a generation of kids grows up with electricity and running water on in their houses all day, every day. Until then, the country is still “developing”.

So from the outside, it seems like Georgia has all the things you might expect a modern country to have. They have supermarkets and roads and buildings with indoor plumbing. They have medication and radio stations that play Adele and police stations constructed from nothing but pure metaphor. They have restaurants and casinos and hotels and restaurant/casino/hotels. So why is it that relatively simple things, like having change for five lari, or creating and following a daily schedule or itinerary, or in fact planning any sort of occurrence at all more than 45 minutes in advance, are basically unheard-of?

Georgia is currently in a period of relative stability and growth, but the culture has not yet adapted to that stability (which may be wise – I mean, who knows if it will last?) Coming from the US, which has been surprisingly stable for at least 300 years, it’s hard to really understand the real implications of living in an unstable region without actually living there for a long time. When your country is unstable – when you can’t really trust that your government will follow through on basic promises, when you can’t really rely on your legal system to enforce contracts, when you can’t really trust your larger, more powerful neighbors not to just take over one day – it changes not just the way you plan, but the very value of planning.

Not to delve too far into economics, but we can calculate the expected value of a plan using some reasonably simple math, and to make a long story short, the less likely a plan is to succeed, the less valuable that plan is to us in the present. I can plan to win a million dollars in the lottery, but if my chance of actually winning is very very small, then the value of that plan is also very small (and any money I spend on that plan is likely to be lost).

To a person living in an unstable country, every plan is a little like playing the lottery. As the number of separate, unreliable agents involved in any plan increases, the likelihood of that plan’s success decreases. If your plan requires two people to get somewhere on time, you might succeed. If your plan requires ten people to get somewhere on time, you are less likely to succeed. If your plan requires ten people, electricity, running water, and a particular weather condition… well, you may as well just not make the plan. The time you spend planning will be wasted, and the disappointment when the plan goes awry will be unpleasant. Better to just wing it.

A lot of the adaptations in Georgian society are built around that premise. Just winging it is a lot easier in Georgia, a lot more likely to succeed, and a lot less likely to annoy people. Georgian people have grown more flexible and more amenable to sudden, last minute changes in plans (or to not having plans at all) and more understanding about disappointments and mistakes and time-wasting situations. After two years in this country, I have too. I can see when people who are new to Georgia are frustrated about something not happening on schedule, and I can see that they can see that I am not frustrated – not the least bit concerned – and I can see that my apparent apathy frustrates them even more. I try to be understanding, but ultimately, I’ve just adapted. It’s not expect the unexpected – it’s don’t expect anything.

And unlike most of the differences I’ve noticed between here and the US, I’m not really judging this one. To me, it’s not better, it’s not worse – it just is. There are advantages and disadvantages to both paradigms, there are optimizations you can make to both systems (and Georgia is fairly well-optimized for a low-planning paradigm), and the only times anyone really questions the way things are are when people from both paradigms both try to apply their way of thinking in the same situation – when an American and a Georgian try to work together.

And it’s not like Georgians never plan, or can’t plan. I initially thought that, but I’ve been proven wrong over and over again. Georgians are just much, much more cautious and judicious about planning than Americans. You could say that they just build more flexibility into their plans; that their plans are less schedules and procedures and more frameworks and general guidelines. It’s just like how Americans plan for most things but are also capable of being spontaneous. And of course individuals vary.

Still, I think that there’s something in my personality that leans towards the Georgian way. Maybe it’s the novelty, or maybe I have trouble coping with disappointment, or maybe I’m just a free spirit, (that last one was sarcastic) but I find myself happier with the Georgian way – with just sort of letting more things go, with planning less and adventuring more, with trusting in good will and good fortune to ensure that everyone has a good time and everything turns out more or less okay.

I wonder if prolonged contact with the West will start to change this. TLG is already better at planning than many other organizations I’ve interacted with in Georgia. Western businesses and western-educated business leaders will start to recognize the economic value in sticking to plans and schedules, in teaching and enforcing basic reliability among their employees, in cultivating in customers the expectation that things will work the way they are expected to work. I think the people will start to adapt to this, will start to plan more and lose some of their spontaneity and their skill at making the best of every situation will start to fall into disuse and eventually disrepair. But, maybe not.

Either way, I suppose I’ll adapt too.

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Seriously – it’s a great movie. Check it out.

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7 Responses to Thoughts on Adaptation

  1. tnlr says:

    This is your best post.

    Seriously.

  2. George from Georgia says:

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! These thoughts are so true, so simple, but of course Georgians never bothered themselves to explain it to you. I can only add that the roots of this uncertainty go much deeper than you think. So called Soviet rule and post-soviet unrest is just one page of thick book of history of Georgians. Uncertainty always was a main player of Georgian reality.

  3. katie says:

    Great post.

    Someone said to me recently that “Americans think, on some level, that every problem can eventually be solved. Europeans don’t have that same expectation, which is really a pretty unusual one, when you think of it.” This seems related to, though not really quite the same as, what you muse on here.

  4. Nino says:

    I’m 30 years old Georgian and I was thinking about this just few days ago, reading the article I was thinking you read my thoughts. Instability and also religious aspects are making Georgian people a bit more spontaneous and disorganized.

    • tnlr says:

      ‘a bit’ is understatement here. πŸ™‚

      The thing is… the situation was like this during Soviet times too, back 30-50 years ago. That time society was (or at least look from inside and outside) quite stable, yet spontaneous nature of people was the same way as it is today.

      So, the question comes – how much ‘stability’ and in which form is required to change the situation? And will it ever happen?

  5. I have found this to be the case in every country outside of the US I have been to (30) to some degree because the US was the first to be so commodified and also with lots of living space to have our way in day-to-day life. As you say, it’s not better or worse, it just is. The only two countries I have been where I felt like I was sloppy and out-of-step were Germany and Japan, though for different reasons with Japan, which has unique cues to social order we can’t understand.

    What you have written reminds me a lot of Turkey – I had planned to teach there next but quickly determined I’m in no mood for unstructured living again.

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