We Europeans

It helps to understand the differences in European values and attitudes by thinking in geographical terms, what I call the ‘Macro-Divides’. There are at least three: the Island-Continent Divide, the East-West Divide and, for want of a better description, the ‘South-North Incline’.

The Island-Continent Divide is the most obvious, especially on the British/Irish side! There is something about islands. Maybe because you have so many people rubbing shoulders in a relatively confined space, they tend to produce strict social hierarchies. But there is another thing, too, namely that the English and the Irish have an approach to life that is fundamentally different from that of many continentals. (Note that I say the English, the word ‘British’ being a political and not a cultural definition. The Scots in particular diverge to some extent from the English tradition.) Continentals tend to be ‘regulatory-minded’, whereas the English/Irish approach to life is characterised by a relatively laissez-faire, laid-back attitude and a significant tolerance of ambiguity – something that Continentals tend to fight shy of. No doubt a number of reasons account for this, in particular the influence of Roman Law or the Civil Code, which applies in most Continental countries in one form or another, and even applies to Scotland. It also owes something to the fact that the English have been spared invaders and occupiers for nearly 1,000 years.

The East-West Divide virtually splits Europe in half. Many of the people to the west of this dividing line are – together with the North Americans, the Australians, the New Zealanders and the South Africans – members of a global minority: the individualist, issue-oriented folk who make up perhaps no more than ten per cent of the world’s population. The people to the east of this line are, like most other people in the world, collectivist in spirit and relationship-oriented. The line is essentially the division between the western Roman Church and the eastern Orthodox church. The latter’s influence on the hearts and minds of the people was such that they developed a very strong sense of community and an equally strong acceptance of hierarchy and authoritarianism.

The South-North Incline, less self-evident than the others, is the third major feature of the European Peninsula. As you move northwards from the Mediterranean littoral, the social constraints experienced largely at an almost subconscious level by southern cultures emerge further north as clearcut, expressly stated and universally held social attitudes. This ‘incline’ has to do with values like accountability and transparency, which are much more integral to everyday life in the countries of the North. This South-North Incline pops up time and time again in national statistics. For example payment delays in business, where the promptest payers are the Finns and the slowest are the Greeks, or new product take-off times, which are twice as long in Greece as in the Nordic countries.Maybe this explains why the Greeks lead relatively stress-free lives, with the lowest suicide rate in Europe…

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  1. Interesting. The eventual ‘blocs’ that will sustain the major Parties (essentially coalitions of interest) that will compete for power in Europe are going to be based on calculations such as these – the analogy is with the creation of the Democrats and the Republicans and their shifts of regional base in the US as it became a trult Federal Republic.

    I referred to this at the end of http://asithappens.tppr.info/journal/2008/2/27/the-danish-cartoons-controversy-second-phase.html and in earlier postings. I would not even attempt to predict how these ‘European Socialist’ and European Conservative Parties will shape up to be – and whether withdrawalist and nationalist elements will manage to detach bits of the new ’empire’ and at what point troops will be used (perhaps Kosovo is a sign of things to come inside the EU) but what we can predict is that, like the US, ideology will not always be high on the agenda.

    Personally I am an English Euro-sceptic but St, Jude, Patron of Lost Causes, always was my patron saint 🙂 The damn thing is a disaster but it seems to be a disaster that lemming-like the people want so let them have it.

  2. Thank you! Cultural differences/affinities lie at the roots of many things. Unfortunately, despite occasional acts of window-dressing like the current Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the European Commission is in denial.

  3. I am not so sure about todays validity of the line between East and West, Roman church and eastern Orthodox church separating individualists from people with a strong sense of community. Aren´t Greeks individualists with not a strong sense of community. Or look at Albania. After the collapse of the Hodscha regime which featured no private ownership of things, people have kept very little sense of community. Public infrastructure has been even looted after the demise of communism. What has emerged is something in between individualism and community spirit, something more archaic, centered on the family and their interests.


  4. Yes, individual Greeks are great individualists but as a community, regardless of their ethnic origins, they tend to think and react collectively (I can refer you to a past blogactiv posting of mine, ‘What’s in a name?‘). The Greek government refuses to acknowledge the existence of ethnic minorities… and the most vociferous defenders of the Greek collective ideal are the rank and file of the Orthodox Church.

    Albanians, as you say, tend to be clannish in mentality, and history shows they were always like that. As it happens, the most clannish are the Gegs of northern Albania who are Muslim or, in a minority, Catholic.

    The Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede developed the individualism-collectivism index back in the 1970s. He said that “the first group in our lives is always the family into which we are born”. This certainly applies to Greeks. Hofstede found the highest collectivist quotient in Greece and what at the time was Yugoslavia.

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