Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 1)

I was born and raised in Bucharest, which to my mind is now an ungraceful combination of little Dubai, some lost flavor of little Paris, lots of communist reminders and a striking “attracting investors at all costs” attitude. Bucharest seems to say “I can be flexible, careless, mindless and disrespectful of any cultural past, just pick me, pick me” and it’s turning each day into a sad buffoon-city. I lived an important part of my adult life outside Romania but every day, I am more and more fascinated and frustrated by the country I was born in, relentlessly asking myself what are we doing wrong. During the last field season I talked to many people living in Transylvania. Although my interviews targeted people’s perception about ecosystem services they also contributed to my own perception about Romanians in general and confirmed some basic “anthropological” suspicions I had. In my opinion, this entitled me to write a post on my fellow Romanians. It is not meant to offend or hurt anyone. It is meant to help understand us better by presenting some thoughts that occurred to me. If you will soon visit Romania, you will work with a Romanian, or will hire one, or will marry one (good choice!), or you simply share my fascination for these people, here are 7 paradoxes that in my view you should know about.

1. Romanians are smart (I’d even go for brilliant), but it doesn’t help us. There are several hints our individual IQ is high. Take for example the scores of the international Olympics in physics, mathematics, informatics, chemistry. We are hunted by IT companies, we are working for NASA, we are very good air pilots.  “Paradoxically, Romania is also the country where some of the most brilliant young brains in the world are born. Here the rate of gifted children is twice the average worldwide. […] Some of the most feared hackers in the world are operating in Romania. Corporations like Microsoft have a big community of Romanians among their workforce and they keep recruiting more” (The Economist, August 2012). We are good speakers of foreign languages. Our intellectual training is above average. There are testimonials from doctors in Europe that work with Romanian doctors, from companies that employ Romanian programmers or engineers and from professors that teach Romanian students. To have a Romanian in a team of scientists is probably a strength (I am not referring to myself). By the way, regarding that infamous rumor that we are lazy, it is definitely not true. Maybe our body is a bit lazy but our mind is restless. We may have heaps of defaults but this is certainly not one of them. We are just hard to motivate. Usually a tiny financial stimulus will suffice to make us work extra hours. Place a Romanian within a functional structure, give him the tools and aims to occupy his mind with and let his brain do the job. He will perform nicely.

Now what happens if you take more Romanians, say a country, and expect them to perform?  Will they match up to the individual results? NO. Because something mysterious (call it black magic) happens that totally undermines the result. The more you add, the worse it gets. The intelligence of individuals is balancing out in an abominable and mind-blowing process. The whole gets smaller than the sum of its parts. Whoever will find the dynamics and mechanisms of this “black magic” please let us know. Seeing that a country is all about the society as a whole, this explains, partly, why we are doing SO bad when we have several reasons to do well (natural capital, intellectual capital). End of story, our collective intelligence is as high as the Marianas Trench. We have a remarkable brain, but it doesn’t help us at all. Actually it makes matters worse because we tend to use it against each other. We lack a constructive thinking. We lack social capital.

2. As a group, we don’t have a strategic and long-term thinking but we can adapt to many circumstances that other would fail to adapt to. We have a high adaptability and resilience (see history). Our survival is not based on some consistent methods, but rather on imitations and smelling opportunities as we go. We are reactive to outside drivers of change, but we fail to address issues in a proactive manner and with a common vision. We are somewhat “opportunistic species”. Of our words of wisdom: “We will come through somehow”; “We will get along, it is no need to fuss”; “It is ok as it is, no need to work more”; “If you are determined you can move mountains, if you are smart you leave them there ’cause they ain’t bothering”.

3. We are creative, spiritual and warm-hearted people with a developed artistic nature but at the same time a healthy amount of unhealthy negativism. Brancusi, Cioran, Eliade, Enescu, Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, Herta Müller, Mircea Cartarescu, Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Dan Perjovschi, etc., and “Romania, the land of Fabulospirit”.  Unfortunately our abundant creativity is not put into our best service. That is why I empathize with all the external institutions that are trying to figure out what exactly we are doing with the funds they are giving us and need to listen to our Harry Potter-esque, otherwise fabulous stories. It is also true that we are greedy for money and we would have the guts (and probably the idea how) to sell ice to the Eskimos. But once we have money, we kind of throw it left and right and avoid keeping good accounts.

We have a well-developed sense of humor, doubled by a risky dose of mocking spirit. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we always make fun of trouble. But this does not make us feel happy or positive. You can easily see people in the street or at the cash desks are virtually not smiling, nor looking at you. We also make acid hypercritics (just as I am now?!? and as Romanian comments to this post may be). Romanians will often use “constructive feedback” as an euphemism for blunt hostility, and a more or less disguised intention to make you look bad in the eyes of others, especially if you compete for the same thing or share the same working field. Last but not least, we absolutely love to complain. We are so good at it, that sometimes we give the impression we live a worse life than we actually do (this also explains a great deal of those lousy survey results). We make exceptional poses as victims and we cultivate this exquisite gift assiduously (not clear to me whether it is a role or we actually believe what we are saying). For example when I asked people in Viscri (!) about their life they gave the impression they were unhappy. As a principle, we don’t appreciate what we have. We always fear others have more and better than we do.

Romanians are hospitable. It sounds as a cliché, but it’s true. We take joy in receiving people in our homes, talking, joking and eating. There is an unwritten rule in Romania that you don’t receive anyone in your home without giving (forcing) him something to eat and drink. And by eating we do not understand the Lilliputian-esque portions that exist abroad (God forbid!). For example, during my field interviews in rural Transylvania, I could have lived on this hospitality (food and drinks I was “forced” with during my interviews) unless I did not have slightly different food habits.

To be continued.

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7 thoughts on “Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 1)

  1. There yu hit the spot – so true! Especially… no, it’s all true. BTW: The hospitality thing is something one can be proud of, but it tends to suffocate your guests once in a while (“you want some more? oh, you’re not hungry? No! Take some! Look, we have also this and that – take some!”)

  2. When Romanians are together, all of them want to be leaders. We become followers only by force, not physical force.
    We are not successful as a country, I guess, because of the fact that not the best people lead Romania at every level.
    Romanian workers in American companies are doing well due to the fact that above their native intelligence, they have to comply with the rules established by the companies management.

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