A few days ago, I noticed an ‘invitation’ from one of my USA-based frequent flyer programs, nestled among the dozens of other promotional emails I had received. This one caught my attention with the bold headline, “Earn up to 13,000 bonus miles and help keep what’s yours, yours.” On most days, an advertisement of this sort would only deserve a cursory glance, but physically being back in the USA has heightened my awareness of marketing messages and I found myself pondering the reasons for duplicating the possessive pronoun “yours, yours” at the end of the statement.
I understand these words were carefully selected to dramatize the very real threat of identity theft, but to me the message was typically American since the targeted individual (moi) was being told ‘you possess something of great value, so don’t let anyone else take it away from you’. While the words had been carefully chosen to appeal to personal ego and our sense of self-importance along with highlighting our legal rights of possession, I also see them as yet another sign that the American cultural pendulum has swung to the extreme end of the individualism spectrum.
The American Context
One of the cultural differences I often note between life in the West and most developing countries is the strong sense of personal ownership that exists in most Western countries. Furthermore, from my point of view, cries of ownership and possession reach their climax in American culture. In the sprawl of suburbia and rural areas of the USA, where people live in spacious single-family homes surrounded by big green lawns, this sense of ownership expresses itself most strongly. It isn’t much of a surprise to note that these are also the same areas where gun ownership is the highest since the use of force to defend one’s possessions is viewed (and often codified in law) as a legal right.
Signs posted in front of houses that read “No Trespassing” can easily be spotted as can bumper stickers (especially on big trucks) that proclaim, “This vehicle is insured by Smith and Wesson,” a well-known US gun manufacturer. These messages act as threats and scream “This is my property, so touch it or walk on it at your own peril!” I find such messages to also be an example of the ugliness that masquerades as discourse in the USA these days, where threats and bullying are no longer recognized as bad behavior but are instead condoned and publicly promoted at the highest levels of the American government.
A few years ago, when I was visiting family in the USA, I walked into the edge of a neighbor’s 5-acre lawn while filming a silly video about Americans’ love affair with grass. Mind you, I was only a few feet away from the street and FAR away from anyone’s house when the neighbor who lived next door approached me from behind and warned that I shouldn’t be standing on his neighbor’s property without permission. My jaw dropped onto my chest at the shock of his statement, as I slowly came to realize this was no longer the same easy-going, friendly area where I had grown up.
In hyper-Capitalistic American culture, people often defend their right to protect their personal property by pointing out the opposite extremes of state ownership under systems such as Communism. Indeed, the hysterical Cold War days of the ‘Red Scare‘ are still alive and well in some parts of the USA.
Don’t misunderstand the intent behind this post. I’m not preaching against private ownership of property, a topic that could be debated at length in a much longer post, nor am I saying that Americans and other Westerners are innately selfish human beings because they place a great deal of value on things such as home ownership and maintenance. Some of the most generous people I know are average Americans who feel strongly about sharing what they have with others who are in need.
However, when considering how possession and ownership are practiced in other lands, many shades of gray can be found. My aim is to present what I perceive to be often extreme differences between the way ownership is viewed within various cultures where I’ve lived and worked.
The people of Oman, along with the citizens of other Arabian Gulf countries, have adopted America’s love of consumption. Living in large houses–with lots of space to fill up with stuff–and driving big gas-guzzling cars and trucks has become the norm in that part of the world where oil wealth has given the population the disposable income needed to shop at will. Nevertheless, the way in which Omanis readily share these possessions with others is quite remarkable.
Omanis have traditionally been known for their hospitality. Many are descendants of Bedouin tribes which lived in the desert and had little use for anything other than the bare necessities used for storing and preparing food. Due to the extreme living conditions in one of the world’s hottest and driest regions, sharing whatever one had with traveling strangers became part of the code of the desert. Since bedouins came from a tradition where desert boundaries weren’t strictly defined, it wasn’t unusual for Omani men to walk through an open exterior door if they were curious about the interior of a house or apartment building. I was surprised more than once by this habit.
Based on my experiences in the Sultanate, the tradition of offering hospitality to strangers and often blurred boundaries regarding land and material possessions are still in existence today. Guests are always invited inside (it’s considered rude to refuse) where even the poorest families will share whatever they have—traditionally dates and coffee.
Due to the collectivist nature of Omani culture, it’s rare to find a used car for sale that was previously Omani-owned because they are simply passed on to another family member. The same is true for sharing other, more personal, possessions as well. Multiple times when I’d comment on an Omani student’s or friend’s new mobile phone, they’d say, “Oh my brother/sister/uncle… gave me their phone to use,” and trust me, Omanis ARE attached to their phones. As wonderfully generous as most of my American friends are, I doubt many of them would be willing to readily hand over a possession as sacred as their cell phone.
This spirit of generosity can even run to the extreme as I found out one day while buying travel insurance. The Omani agent, a male around 30-years-old, was very friendly so we chatted while we waited for his computer to process my information and spit out the travel documents I needed.
While I watched him fill in the information on one of the forms, I noticed he was wearing a particularly striking gold ring with a large blue stone, a piece of jewelry I immediately recognized as having exquisite craftsmanship and well-aged quality. When I commented on how beautiful the ring was, he quietly removed it from his finger and placed it on the desk right in front of me and simply said, “I want you to have it.” I was speechless for a moment. Then, I smiled and tried to politely decline by saying, “Oh, but this looks like a treasured family heirloom.” “It is,” he said. “It belonged to my grandfather.”
The ring remained in the same location on the desk in front of me for the next 20 minutes while we finished our transaction. When the agent handed me my documents, we shook hands, I thanked him and slipped out of the office leaving the ring on the desk without any further discussion. When I told my Western colleagues about this experience, most relayed similar, if less dramatic, experiences of their own.
On the other hand, there were exceptions to the ‘what’s mine is yours’ rule. Farm animals are allowed to roam freely in Oman, so if you’re unlucky enough to collide with a goat or camel while driving—and assuming you survive the crash—you’ll be fully expected to hand over an amount of Omani Rial equal to the animal’s market value, often on the spot. And yes, such accidents do happen frequently, especially on desert roads at night.
Sense of personal space
While the freedom with which Omanis share possessions may be on the extreme side, I also observed the communal nature of human interaction and exchange in other countries where I’ve lived such as Thailand, as well as in my current home of Colombia. Locals in these places often have a very different sense of personal space than Westerners and I see this as being linked to their differing views on the value of possessions.
In the small Colombian town where I live, most houses share a common wall with their neighbors on either side so the idea of being separate from others seems to disappear. Children play in the street inches away from the thin metal entry door to my apartment which often reverberates with the sound of bouncing balls. Teenagers may be sitting on my door step courting so I have to remind myself to be careful when opening the door to go out, and the neighbor’s dog (or should I say ‘everyone’s’ dog) will often sit and bark on my doorstep as well.
The noise can be incredibly annoying to a Westerner accustomed to having more space between themselves and the neighbors, but it’s important to realize that being part of a neighborhood means sharing such aspects of life. Most Colombians would reject the ‘sterile’ nature of America’s suburbs, and view them as lonely, lifeless places where people hide inside their fortresses and rarely interact with neighbors.
The same was true of Thailand, where much of life for an average Thai person was lived outside in the streets around their house or apartment. Being alone was frowned upon and sharing a sense of community was valued far more than material wealth.
You may say I’m comparing apples to oranges since the vast majority of people in the developing world have fewer financial resources (lower salaries and access to loans) and are therefore less likely to accumulate the kind of luxuries Westerners are so afraid will be taken away from them, and to some extent that’s true.
And while media assaults us all, both rich and poor, with messages telling us we’re being deprived if we don’t have this or that, in my eyes those who prioritize personal relationships and quality time with loved ones above material possessions are far more fortunate than those who hoard their wealth and lie awake at night worrying that someone, somewhere is angling to take it away from them.
In case you missed it, check out my post “The Pursuit of Happiness” for more reasons why possessing things doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.