For a long time, I have been wanting to tackle the broad subject of the Evil Eye, or more generally, the cultural handling of showing gratitude. It seems particularly relevant with the end-of-year holiday season which places great emphasis on gratitude.
There has been much debate and discussion about the use of the hashtag #blessed in social media in North America and Australia. Many people are wishing to express their gratitude for good fortune, while others point to the watering down of the actual meaning of the word, which refers to holiness, or worse, the implication that “I am on God’s side and am being rewarded, while someone less fortunate may have somehow asked for it.”
As a Midwestern American, I did not realize the emphasis on public display of gratitude in my culture, which stems from the general religious outlook in this part of the world, and is part economics. I continually feel compelled to publicly express how grateful I am for great co-workers, family, a happy event, or to just have an overall pleased countenance, but I also have some reservations after what I have experienced in the world, particularly in Greece, Turkey, and Eastern Europe.
The first time I experienced this withholding of exuberant behavior was in Poland, which is probably one of the most underrated countries in the world on the traveling circuit (it’s affordable for tourists, has remarkable architecture in many places, and there’s interesting food). I was particularly happy at that time because I had just finished my undergraduate degree, so I was smiling at lots of people, particularly children and trying to indicate admiration for families, because in my experience in the US, people appreciate “approval” from strangers over how cute their kids are or if they excel at something. The reaction I got in return was not disapproval or worry, but Polish people did not really know how to take it – the expressions were something akin to “I wonder what he wants or thinks is so special about this everyday scene.” At a 750th charter anniversary celebration in Krakow in June 2007, I noticed the crowd was very reserved though everyone was enthralled with the concert. I was raving about it at the youth hostel later that night and the staff had a watery-eyed reaction that suggested a sense of validation, but responded with polite but terse “We are so happy to hear that” but no gesticulating or further comments.
Much of Asia is this way as well, but I did not really begin to understand it until I went to Turkey and Greece five years later. The caution was exacerbated in Greece by the depths of the financial crisis that year.
“As an American, the object is to be seen as generous to others but at the same time keep the focus on one’s individuality and sole accomplishments.”
In Turkey, I started seeing the hand emblem or amulet on a lot of jewelry (pictured above, the hamsa) and a black eye surrounded by blue. I had heard of the “evil eye” all my life and thought that it was something like a Sicilian curse. While variants of that do exist and all kinds of cultures and religions have appropriated or misappropriated it, I would say that a broader application of that is a general “don’t draw attention to yourself – doing so will cause you bad luck.” In Turkey, which was doing very well economically at the time (though Syria was a worry already), I often said to Turkish people “You have such a happy country.” “What?!” I would hear. People would then conjure up any kind of negative point on the country they could, though if I said anything in kind, the one major point that people would get defensive with is any observation of collectivism or stronger family ties. As an American, the object is to be seen as generous to others but at the same time keep the focus on one’s individuality and sole accomplishments.
A few weeks later in Greece, I landed in Athens where I knew a few people who were pickpocketed within a matter of days, I could not get money out of an ATM at times, and there was a deflationary depression going on with 25% unemployment. There were many places I went that were unsafe. And yet the sun perpetually shines there, it’s remarkably beautiful, and so where there is a glimmer of “hope,” oftentimes Americans will try the Pollyanna approach – or at least a number of them will and I am among them – and thus think that their will and prayers can overcome the darkness. Very little of what I have experienced in the abundance of the US contradicts this, and when circumstances are lean, we are trained to double down and smile even brighter until it becomes believable. This has always worked for me. However, in Greece, it brought trouble, suspicion, and oftentimes it is why Americans do not seem trustworthy or sincere to people from different backgrounds.
As soon as I was smiling and joking with other tourists in a way that was maybe too ostentatious, someone mentally deranged would come shouting in our direction. At a cafe, somehow the barista started talking about the economy in Greece when he indicated that he makes €1,200 a month for full-time work, net, in a city where the rent is now around €300-350 a month. I responded that this was great and he has done very well for himself and he stepped back, stupefied as to how to respond. Again, bad luck to call too much attention to good fortune when so many are suffering.
In countries with unstable governments or irregular tax collection, one also needs to discriminate how and when to show off because that can draw the attention of auditors or other types of retribution.
In other climes, such as in northern Europe, it is also not appreciated to express too much gratitude or point out one’s attributes or good fortune. There are many reasons for this, but I suspect that the biggest is economics. In the deregulated environment of the US, one has to constantly attract in order to be seen as a viable, relevant “product.” In deregulated Asia, this is mainly expressed through keeping up physical appearances but not crossing the line into standing out. In extroverted US, declarative statements and professing of otherness is required in order to hold market share (so long as one does not become too marginalized), which has applications in all spheres of our lives. Though western Europe is rapidly Americanizing in this sense (I started noticing pharmaceuticals in advertisements there in 2012 for the first time, and changes in consumer preferences as well as advertising), there is still resistance toward the striving for attention that characterizes American culture because the enlarged public sector and emphasis on cultural institutions makes that behavior less of a necessity.
In no way do I think that any of the shades of showing gratitude or not showing it are fundamentally wrong. Though I have a strong cultural preference for itemizing the reasons I am thankful, I can no longer do so without reservations. Is a highly optimistic, grateful approach one that uplifts everyone and builds stronger community, or simply a way of building a platform to draw more positive attention to ourselves?