The impact of social discomfort

The following passage is from Hayek on Hayek, an autobiographical dialogue.

Qi: What is it about you that makes you feel comfortable with the British?

HAYEK: The strength of certain social conventions which make people understand what your needs are at the moment without mentioning them.

Qi: Can you give us an example?

HAYEK: The way you break off a conversation. You don’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I’m in a hurry.” You become slightly inattentive and evidently concerned with something else; you don’t need a word. Your partner will break off the conversation because he realizes without your saying so that you really want to do something else. No word need to be said about it. That’s in respect for the indirect indication that I don’t want to continue at the moment.

Qi: How would that differ in the United States? More direct?

HAYEK: Either he might force himself to listen too attentively, as if he were attentive, or he might just break off saying, “Oh, I beg your pardon, but I am in a hurry.” That would never happen–I can’t say never happen-but that is not the British way of doing it.

Qi: How does it differ from the Austrian?

HAYEK: There would be an effusion of polite expressions explaining that you are frightfully sorry, but in the present moment you can’t do it. You would talk at great length about it, while no word would be said about it in England at all.

In just a few words, the author of A Road to Surfdom contrasts the norms of three different cultures. He says he’s most at home amongst the British because he does not have to explain himself. He is understood.

Perhaps this comes across as trivial, but it is not. The implications of social traits and standards can have immediate financial consequences. Say a couple goes to a jewelry store to buy an engagement ring. Should the person behind the counter misread their prospect and act too haughty, or too economical, the couple could become offended and walk out. The shop looses a sale. Or say a very bright student tours a potential university. At every question, she is cut off and talked over. The school loses an excellent scholar.

What’s tricky about these judgments and rejections is the person behind the counter or leading the tour never receives the feedback. People simply walk away from these situations. They politely decline to interact. So the offenders of social rules never are brought up to speed, they are simply left behind.

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