December 7, 2015

Patience vs Efficiency

I'm going to go out on a bit of a controversial limb and make the kind of generalization I myself have warned about. Generalizations lead to prejudices, and prejudices are the foundation of racism.

But one thing that makes expat life so interesting is that you do get to observe how other cultures foster behaviors different from our own, and often that teaches us something worth knowing about ourselves.

Most Africans are patient. Very, VERY patient, in fact. If you see the kinds of queues people stand in on a Friday afternoon, especially at month's end, waiting for a taxi to take them home, you cannot help but marvel at such stoicism. Me, I would pull my hair out after about 10 minutes. Maybe 30 minutes if I'd brought along my Kindle. Let's not even talk about what Noisette would do.

What makes them so patient? Is it their upbringing? Is it that years of living under apartheid required of you to be very patient or you'd go insane? Or have they realized, better than the Western world, that patience is often the easiest path to happiness, or if not happiness, then contentment? Judging by all the big smiles you encounter so abundantly on any given day in Africa, that last one might be closest to the truth.

I would honestly say there isn't a big difference between South Africa's black (91%) and white (9%) population in terms of this patience. Seeing how quickly every Africa-bound expat has been able to acquire oodles of patience, whether by necessity or by choice, it makes sense that over entire generations any differential in this regard would have evened out. I like to call it Type A Remedial School. In Africa, we learn to shrug and say "Welcome to Africa" and move on. Back home, we like to yell at someone, fume until steam comes out of our ears, and expend a lot of energy nursing our anger.

Our first understanding for the need of patience came on our first safari at Yellow Wood Game Lodge, where it rained and rained and rained (hard to believe now that there is a severe drought) so that we were stuck at the lodge most of the time, not able to go out. When we finally were able to see our first giraffes and rhinos, the reward for our patience was awesome.

I'm a fairly patient person, and Africa has made me even more so. However, certain things I can't change about myself. If I can get there by walking faster, for instance, I will walk faster rather than slower. There is always something I want to get done, so speeding things up to get through with it is the ultimate goal. But that is just my Western, and perhaps white, attitude. I could never ever sit by the roadside under a tree all day, as I've seen SO many times when touring the African countryside. I just couldn't. There would always be something more meaningful I could pass the time with.

Maybe you could argue that I'm just spoiled, always having something at my disposal to pass the time with, like my phone or a computer or even simply a book. But I don't think that's all of it. I think, in our Western culture, we are just raised in a way that teaches us to keep ourselves busy. To show something for the time we've passed. Except of course if you're a teenager. Then you are perfectly content to sleep until 11:30, take a 45-minute shower, eat something, take a nap, eat a bit more, and spend the rest of the day depleting your parents' internet bandwidth watching YouTube videos.

Patience is definitely a virtue, and I have great admiration for patient people. However, there can be too much of a good thing. What is patience to one can be disrespect to the other. For instance, being told that everything will be fine and to wait until Just Now, whenever that might be, is greatly annoying when you know something COULD be done, if only there was a will. Many a South African government agency or utility could be run so much more efficiently without the automatic assumption that consumers will be patient. American customer service is often so superior because it has the customer at its center. Doesn't matter if you share the customer's' beliefs. The customers are always right, and they are probably impatient for a solution, so you better find one faster than Just Now.

So much in South Africa could run better and faster if only people were a lot more impatient. Impatience has bred a lot of change in the world, and we like to think of it as progress. But if South Africa become more impatient and perhaps more efficient, would it lose some of its charm? There is no doubt in my mind that it would.

I wonder if there is some kind of middle ground on that spectrum between patience on one side, and efficiency on the other, perhaps allowing a peak of whatever curve you draw between the two. The ideal center.

Maybe expat life is so rewarding because it allows us to find balance somewhere near such an ideal center between cultural extremes. At the least, I think it allows us to better understand those at the opposite end of the spectrum.