I work in a state-sector Further Education college in the London suburbs. Most of our students are 16 to 19 year old full-timers taking A-levels or vocational equivalents, but we also have a large number of part-time adult students, mostly doing evening classes of one sort or another. We have a fair number of overseas students, and indeed enough of them to warrant the College employing a part-time International Students’ Officer.
One of my jobs is as the first point of contact with people submitting general email enquiries to the College. Mostly these are requests for prospectuses or other straightforward matters that I can deal with myself. Sometimes I have to pass them on to others.
It took me some time to realise – or at least to hypothesise – how illustrative emails were about the differing cultures that people come from. Emails from youngsters wanting a full-time prospectus are nowadays often written in mobile phone text language and/or are simply semi-literate. Emails from adults wanting a part-time prospectus are often just old-fashioned letters – “Dear Sir/Madam, blah blah blah, Yours faithfully” – sent via a new medium. The point is that in either case they tend to be quite short and direct: This is who I am, where I live, and what I want.
Emails – and indeed still the occasional letter – from overseas are often very different. And by ‘overseas’ I mean a very limited number of countries that between them supply the majority of such enquiries to the College: Pakistan, Nigeria, and The Gambia. The most noticeable feature about them is the quite astonishingly flowery, sycophantic, and obsequious tone in which they are often written. “Esteemed Sir, I have heard about your outstanding institution from many sources… It will fulfil a dream for me to come there… I would be truly honoured if you would provide me with information… Your humble servant…” I make this up by way of example, but believe me, it does not begin to do justice to how some of them are written.
At first, I thought that this was merely a rather quaint, if excessive, courtesy. It took me some time to consider that there might be another interpretation, and one that if correct offers an insight into the nature of the societies from which the authors come – and therefore also about our own. Emails from UK enquirers – or indeed the very occasional enquiry from Western Europe or the USA – whether from an adult or a teenager, and whatever the standard of English, tend to share one feature, one which the authors are almost certainly not consciously aware of. They rest on the assumption that their enquiry or request will be dealt with by somebody who they have never met because it is their job to do so and not because of any personal relationship between them and (in this case) myself. We are not related by blood, marriage, or tribe. Indeed, we have never met and quite probably never knowingly will. We owe or are owed no favours to each other. Beyond some modicum of common civility, flattery really will get them nowhere. They likely have no means to coerce or threaten me into (say) sending them a prospectus even if they had the inclination. In short, our relationship is a purely impersonal contractual one involving a number of different parties including myself, the College as my employers, the taxpayer (since the College is mainly in the public sector), the government of the day, the enquirer, and heaven who knows who else. I do ‘x’ for ‘y’ because ‘z’ pays me to do it. I operate in the impersonal ‘cash nexus’.
The overseas ones, however, reveal a fundamentally different set of social assumptions. It is one in which people rarely do anything for impersonal, contractual reasons. Instead, on a case-by-case and arbitrary basis, there is ‘something in it for them’. It may be ties of kinship. It may be personal favours and debts called in, traded or promised. It might be threats or actual force. It might be flattery or outright bribery. Whatever form it takes, it is personal. In the West, we have another term for such dealings: corruption.
If this analysis is correct, then it has profound and indeed profoundly depressing implications for the countries and societies in which the latter type of attitude and behaviour are prevalent. When we look at the advanced Western world, one of the many things one notices is a bifurcation of relationships. There are indeed personal relationships between family, friends, and others that one joins with from time-to-time on a more-or-less voluntary basis. Features of such relationships include that they often fulfil expressive needs and are dependent upon mainly subjective evaluation.
However, the other type of impersonal relationship – most commonly found in that sphere of life we call ‘work’ – have the features of being based around abstract notions of contract and often fulfil instrumental needs and are frequently dependent upon objective evaluation. And it is these types of relationships that are the basis of advanced industrial and post-industrial society, whether of the capitalist, socialist, or mixed-economy type. When one thinks of what is involved in, say, the now familiar act of ordering something on-line, particularly from another country, it is clear that the complex web of relationships involved from hitting the ‘ok’ button to taking delivery of the item cannot be conducted on anything other than an impersonal basis.
It is another matter to try to determine the ‘chicken and the egg’ question of whether the first faltering steps of advanced society helped to develop this new impersonal form of relationship or the other way around. No doubt, it can be a diverting pastime to revisit Marx and try to determine whether economic relations determine social attitudes as he thought, or the other way around, or a fortuitous mix of both. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that countries and cultures where relationships are still primarily based around a constant series of ad hoc interpersonal negotiations lack the fundamental attitudinal infrastructure on which an enduring, advanced society can be built. In the meantime, they will also suffer from what by our standards is endemic corruption.
If my correspondents from West Africa and Pakistan are anything to go by – and presumably they must be amongst the best and the brightest – and short of a policy of frank neo-colonialism from the major nations of the West – I do not hold out much hope for their countries in the foreseeable future.