This article has been updated in September 2021
The following text is about to explore certain cultural elements and general attitudes towards life in Europe in contrast with its Latin American counterpart. The idea is to explore whether kindness is a cultural thing, what is it linked to and where does it come from. Before get on it, I would like to apologise for the fact that I’ll be forced to deploy certain generalisations in this article. I’m not keen on using stereotypes at all but in the context of this piece, it’s unavoidable.
Help the stranger
Only recently, I have returned to Europe from an extended trip to Latin America. Prior to my departure, I was repeatedly warned about how dangerous the Latin World is. However, rather than experiencing much danger, I have suffered from a minor cultural shock instead. It demonstrated itself in the form of frequent encounters with acts of kindness on a daily basis and/or high levels of tolerance and benevolence as well as some form of lust for life.
When I say acts of kindness, I am not necessarily talking about some massive actions. On the contrary, they usually involved rather small, everyday matters. For instance, I have witnessed situations when passers-by helped a stranger to push his or her car that couldn’t start, others would help to pull a heavily loaded trolley uphill for an old lady and so on.
In addition to this spontaneous help to strangers, it was also the communication style that strike me as more humane if compared to some parts of Europe. For instance, a bus driver would grin and willingly advise his passengers about where to get off. He’d even make an extra stop for an old lady in between the two official stops so she doesn’t have to walk far.
Furthermore, the locals also seemed to live every moment, instead of focusing on their tasks only. So when a guy behind the counter of one of Buenos Aires‘ small corner shops asked me where I’m from and why have Czechoslovakia split into two countries, people in the cue behind me were not whinging because I was slowing them down, they were curious, asking additional questions themselves. At the end of the day – what harm did that extra minute in the mini-cue do?
Where does compassion come from?
In combination with observing the fact that many people in Latin America live in harsher economic conditions if compared to common Europeans, it got me thinking about where does all this kindness come from. In fact, I got rather fascinated by how naturally positive could people be, especially when some of them don’t have access to drinking water in their homes (77 million people worldwide, to be precise).
I admit that I’ve experienced this kind and positive attitude towards life, people and things around in general also in several countries I’ve visited in Europe or in South East Asia but in Latin America, it was even more intense. I don’t know why that is, my (non)educated guess would be that it is because the local way of life could be a little melodramatic – something like you can see in Latin soap operas – so everything could come across as being a little overacted 🙂
Are Europeans taking their privileges for granted?
IMHO, this human approach and sense of community were the most fundamental difference between Latin America and present-day Europe. because I feel that such behaviour has nearly disappeared on the old continent over the last few decades. That is, of course only a partially correct statement because some of the southern parts of Europe are still blessed with such attitude to a large extent.
Plus, as we all know, being a kind and compassionate person doesn’t always vary from region to region only but mainly from one individual to another. Anyway. What I’m trying to say is that within my own observation, this phenomenon of living a more full-on life appears to occur more frequently in Latin America and I’m positive that I’m not the only person with such a conclusion. Or is it just a reputation?
We know that a reputation as such is largely based on a cluster of information that is stereotyping a country, region, or group of people. Having encountered negative stereotyping pretty much everywhere I have travelled, I feel safe to say that it’s not a rare phenomenon worldwide.
For example, South Americans are not exactly keen on Argentinians, Vietnamese are not entirely fond of Chinese and 52% of Britons think that Eastern Europeans are exactly identical to how the Daily Mail portrays them. But this shit works on multiple levels. What are Parisians to people from Marseille? How about jokes on blondes or the Irish? The list can go on…
Immigration and compassion
To observe that phenomenon of “concentrated compassion” a bit further, let’s look at immigration. As for Latin America, according to UNHCR, the crisis in Venezuela have forced over 4 million people to flee the country. 3,5 million of them have found new, temporary homes in Latin America. Just Colombia alone has taken more than 1,2 million refugees.*
It’s Colombia, a country of 49 million people with their own massive problems. The fact is that it’s not that long time ago that the immigration flow was going the opposite direction so it is, in a way an act of repaying the debt as an act of solidarity. However, Colombian, or in fact the vast majority of Latin American political parties didn’t run their election campaigns on anti-immigration sentiment like it currently happens with nearly 1/2 of the political spectrum in Europe or the USA.
*September 2021 update: In 2021, the number of Venezuelan refugees reached a staggering 5 million people and Colombia has offered a new home to 1,7 million of them.
The paradox is that, in Latin America, the friendly approach mentioned has gone from people whose lives are often incomparably harder than the lives of ordinary Europeans. Things like peace, economic stability, access to drinking water, health care, low crime, or customer or civil rights can be taken for granted, while the average “Latino” often takes treats them as a privilege.
The European Union’s fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These values unite all the member states and every EU country had recognised these values to be part of the Union. I mean – what is wrong with those?
Anyway. An answer to the question that why now poor people in Latin America are often kinder than an average modern European is not easy. In any case, I would be lying if I said that there is nothing to improve in Europe, but on the other hand, we also have to remember and appreciate what we already have here. It appears that many of us Europeans keep forgetting that we are in fact better off than 70% of people on the planet and yet many of us complain about anything on daily basis…
So I was thinking if benevolence and general kindness are linked to local cultures or their economic standards? For instance, I’m sure that history plays a huge role in shaping certain attitudes towards the poor, vulnerable or migrants. One can argue that having less as a group could bring people more together. There are many elements one can take into consideration. But that’s just a theory – the only important thing are the actual acts of kindness – whatever any theory says.
As for Europeans, I personally think that despite the current geopolitical tendency of demonizing other cultures, the usual hateful debater on social media doesn’t represent an ordinary European. Hate mongering is just louder than ordinary acts of kindness and Zuckerberg with his mates are just exploiting the lowest elements of human nature and turn it into a profit, regardless of the consequences.
Anyway. I am convinced that most people in Europe can act with compassion and empathy over the problems of another person. I do believe that most of us can be friendly and compassionate. These qualities do not belong to either the political platform or the interest group. They are human qualities and they all belong to us, whatever the differences between us.
Solving problems that we face as a human race has never been easy but we have to remember that we have already made considerable progress. As for right now/right here, maybe, instead of pointing fingers at everyone else, we all start with ourselves. It’s not that difficult to be kind from time to time. Or – for some of us – just not being a dick would be a good start 😉