The Ukrainian national pastime: Why do we like to quarrel so much?

11 January, 10:55 AM

Srachi (roughly “bickering” with a more profane connotation – ed.) is Ukraine’s national sport; and although this format of interaction is not unique to us, it is in Ukraine that it has a chance to become a kind of business card.

That we (Ukrainians) like to have a good fight is obvious, and not only to us. At several recent workshops on cross-cultural interaction, I had to explain the phenomenon of bickering in detail to foreign clients through the prism of cross-cultural science. After all, Ukrainians arrange bickering not only on social networks, but often transfer it to teams.

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Thus was born a three-part long-read about the nature of srachi in Ukrainian society. The first installment is about the difference between culture (mentality) and srachi.

Of course, this multifaceted phenomenon has a number of reasons, so I will focus on those that I can explain using my specialty.

To begin with, let's define what "srachi" are. The slang dictionary defines this phenomenon as: "The national pastime of Ukrainians, which they traditionally use as a prelude to a constructive discussion or simply a dialogue. Sometimes the prelude itself excites the participants so much that dialogue never really comes about." That is, it means fanning a debate without the intention of reaching an agreement or a constructive conclusion, because otherwise it would be called a "discussion." One might wonder why we would waste time on such disputes, when it seems a much more effective use of our time and nerves to come to an agreement? It is more effective when there is an interest in negotiating with those whose views are very different, and a constructive conclusion of the discussion with a satisfactory result for the parties involved is valuable.

Cross-cultural studies prove that one of the significant factors of society's "srachiness" [in scientific language — polarization] is the difference in the level of trust in familiar (in-group) and unfamiliar (out-group) people. It turns out that the highest level of trust in strangers is in countries where formal institutions work smoothly (and without "lubrication" due to connections), and citizens have a weak dependency on the support of some influential group. In the mentality of such cultures, a stranger is not "dangerous," "suspicious," or "unworthy of trust" until he has resorted to behavior that clearly undermines trust. The leaders in the world according to this indicator are in Scandinavia, in particular, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. There is an average level of public trust in the USA, the Netherlands, Austria, and Great Britain.

We are not alone here. Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians also have this feature

In societies where formal institutions are underdeveloped, under-reformed, weak, temporary, or corrupt (i.e. in the majority of developing countries), the ability to achieve results in one’s life depends on the presence of acquaintances in fundamental institutions, like state bodies, service providers, and mass media. Hypertrophied trust in acquaintances (a close circle, whose opinion, support, and interests are decisive factors in decision-making) contrasts with ultra-low trust in strangers, with whom productive interaction is possible due to their transition into the close circle, or repeated and high-cost demonstration of the value of trust. In such cultures, damaged relationships with important people are a catastrophic event that will be avoided even at the cost of poor performance, failure to fulfill promises or prior commitments, or avoidance of feedback. Ukraine is among the leaders in the world in terms of distrust of strangers, putting us in the same cohort as the Arab world, Sub-Saharan Africa, India (practically all of Southeast Asia), the Mediterranean, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

Still with me? Because we will now talk about srachi specifically in Ukraine. In addition to abysmal public trust, our culture has historically been regionalized—where key decisions are made or heavily modified at the locations where they are implemented rather than at the center — and society has always been divided into a number of groups with diverging interests. Another characteristic mental trait of Ukrainians is criticism before appreciation — the habit of first paying attention to and discussing problems, shameful acts, and failures in interaction. At the same time, it is not always possible to recognize and celebrate the good, which can in fact be rare. We are not alone here. Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians also have this feature. If we add to this extremely low public trust a high level of social polarization, frequently inefficient formal institutions, deeply entrenched unwritten rules ("what will people say", "such and such respected opinion leaders do such and such", "people close to the truth said") and an education system where the values ​​and skills of constructive discussion are not taught, we have an ideal fertile ground for srachi.

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A few scientific conclusions about the basis of srachi in our society:

— The societies most prone to srachi instead of discussions (the degree of publicity of which can be different) are collectivistic ones, with a narrow inner circle of family, friends or long-time proven partners and colleagues, with a high level of uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance is when situations with unpredictable endings are stressful and encourage increased control, "ensuring" the desired result through corrupt actions, and delegating important decisions based on loyalty rather than expertise. "One’s own" in such a society are allowed to do what "strangers" would be persecuted for. This does not mean that there are no srachi in democracies with strong institutions - in such societies, in addition to srachi, there are wide areas of professional discussions.

— The solution to the problem of srachi lies not in the realm of formal logic, but in the realm of "us and them". If an authoritative one of "ours" accepts and validates a different opinion, it will gradually begin to be accepted by the rest of the group, because the danger of being different thereby disappears. That is, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Before formal logic is widely believed in such a society, its source will be assessed for the "correctness" of life choices and public manifestations and markers of being one of "ours" or an "other." In countries with high familism (hyper-trust in in-groups), distance from power and uncertainty avoidance, where the value of education and expertise is discredited, such manifestations are especially noticeable.

- The desire to have srachi is a mechanism of a compulsive search for “one’s own” through the demonstration of actions and decisions that prove belonging to an important group. Whether one stayed or left Ukraine, is sitting with or without power, is posting photos of one’s life or not, what one does or doesn’t celebrate, in general whether or not you live, look, weigh, and act correctly, and who you did or didn’t vote for – all of these are “pain points” through which deep lines of division may pass in the future. This will not be easy to "settle", because people on both sides of these lines of division often perceive each other as "others." It is noteworthy that the markers of “one’s own" are constantly changing, so the fear of falling out of the in-group encourages one to actively demonstrate the proper status - in particular, through social networks.

"Falling in love" with people whose activities should be professionally evaluated without special sentiments is also a sign of an ultra-distrustful, polarized, familism-oriented societies, which is significantly strengthened by the trauma caused by war. If you read and quote a book, you must "worship" the author. If you take a picture with someone, you must have sold yourself out completely.  If you provide a professional comment, you must be rooting for someone and approve of their every decision, up to the choice of their clothes, car, or life partner. It is noteworthy that not all collectivist societies are prone to such manifestations, namely those where collectivism is accompanied by low public trust and weak or ineffective formal institutions. In places where these institutions for the most part function,, the compulsive fear of losing group approval and support diminishes or disappears (like in Germany or France).

Conclusions from Part 1:

Srachi are the Ukrainian national sport; and although this format of interaction is not unique to us, it is in Ukraine that has become a kind of "business card,"for better or for worse.

— The effectiveness of formal institutions and confidence in the ability to achieve life results by one's own efforts greatly affect the "srachability" of a society, thus reducing dependence on the support of influential groups and giving greater freedom of decision and action. After all, it makes no sense to rush to prove your "correctness" to people who have little influence on your life.

— Increasing the value of constructive discussion as a tool and interaction skills through the education system is among the key factors in reducing social aggression, which causes srachi. After all, it is no shame to publicly throw dirt on "outsiders" (out-group), as this is what they need. Because how can those strangers be useful, and why bother with them? Currently, our schools and universities mostly do not teach reasoned discussion and do not instill the value of finding common solutions, instead of competing for status and favor within one’s group.

To those who have read this far, I sincerely thank you for your attention and interest, I appreciate your attention. In Parts 2 and 3, we will continue to explore the topic of srachi through a cross-cultural prism from a practical point of view and with options for solutions: whether it is possible/advisable to avoid srachi or stop them quickly, and should be done to reduce the "heat" in team interactions.

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