There was a line of customers to the door at the copy shop where I usually print off my class materials. I didn’t have time to wait. I knew I would feel like a bum, but I could still print the handouts at my student’s office, where we have class.
On my walk across town, I passed a photo-printing studio with an ink-jet printer clearly visible from the window. I popped inside and got the OK from the shop assistant to proceed in English. I asked whether I could pay some fee to have her print off my documents — better to overpay for copies than feel like a bum.
She politely told me the shop doesn’t offer such services, and I wouldn’t have the option to overpay for my copies.
I left seething. How could she not print a few sheets for a paying customer? There was no one else in the store!
My lesson the previous evening had evolved into a discussion on Latvian people’s relationship with money, and that was still fresh on my mind.
Latvians just don’t know how to recognize an opportunity. That shop assistant could have pocketed small — but easy — money, but she couldn’t think beyond the frame of, “This is a photo-printing shop, not a copy shop.” Typical.
I caught myself right there. As a traveler and curious dude, I’ve practiced my share of arm-chair anthropology. I’ve been guilty many times of taking a very small sample size about a culture — one conversation and one unhelpful shop assistant, for example — and drawing some wild conclusions.
If traveling has taught me anything, it’s that my inferences about a culture or a people, no matter how much evidence I have, pretty much suck. Cross-cultural communication specialists use an iceberg to illustrate why.
Most inaccurate inferences are harmless, but one can still catch a whiff of the thinking processes that turn ignorance into prejudice.
I didn’t want to be a hater on this mild December evening.
So I came up with a culture-independent model to explain what happened back at the copy shop: It was 5 o’clock. Some foreigner walked in asking something about PDFs. The girl at the counter probably speaks four languages, is educated to at least a bachelor’s degree level and spends her days monotonously printing photos. She just couldn’t be bothered.