Class and Cultural Icebergs

At the 2012 Property and Freedom Society Conference, a dear friend of mine told me about the books The Nine Nations of North America and Class, and his extrapolation of their ideas.

If I understand correctly, Americans exist with little or no imprint of feudalism upon their psyche. They treat each other as more-or-else equal members, but of different or unknown groups. They are constant diplomats of their group, smiling at the presumed diplomats of other groups to indicate hospitality and peaceful relations.

The French did not obliterate the idea of monarchy in their savage revolution. Instead, every common man tore off a bloody scrap of it and stuffed it into his pocket. Every person now affects monarchical grace tending toward condescension.


The famous iceberg analogy of culture goes thus:

A cultural group has a set of self-conscious manners and behaviors it openly demonstrates to the world. This is the smallest part of the iceberg, the part above the water — easily seen, even from a distance.

If you get close enough to a culture, you can look at the upper portions of the submerged part. There traits, some conscious some not, some deliberately hidden, are the second part.

Lastly, there is the great mass of the culture hanging in the dark depths. Their mysteries only accessible to the most dedicated explorers.


Here is my best guess at Ukrainian culture, and some very basic queues to help orient a new visitor:

1) Consider the self-descriptive title of the book Whisperers about Stalinist Russia.
Imagine a world in which anyone, for almost any reason, can accuse you of a deviation from official state ideology causing you, and possibly you family to vanish from home and society and history.

You would not speak often, you’d choose your listeners carefully, and even then, you’d speak in a hushed voice. Minding one’s own business would be the highest virtue.

2) Imagine a world of constant shortages. Pushing your way to the front of line might be the difference between hunger and relief of it.

I am trying to excuse the behavior of passengers on the airplane when I landed in Kyiv yesterday, returning from the PFS conference.

The pushyness is slowly improving.

3) Imagine Socialism, and more specifically, a world with no profit mandates and bankruptcy for enterprises with poor products or customer service.

Official government granted titles were an important part of status in the Soviet Union. Clerks in government run shops would flaunt their privileged status by lording over customers. There jobs were secure and their income guaranteed whether customers made a purchase or not. Americans can think of how they are treated at DMVs, Post Offices, or by the TSA.

Here I am explaining Ukraine’s poor customers service. I’m happy to say, things are improving rapidly. Extremely poor service seems to be a rarity, but generally good service remains hard to find.

4) Imagine a world in which your success was determined by political connections. It is not the result of your achievements in a system of voluntary interaction, but it is bestowed upon you by authority. This describes two things: 1- Socialism and 2- the collapse of socialism and the violent organized crime of the 90s.

A lingering effect seems to be the ways in which people express status by imitating the fashion, consumerism, and manners of organized crime.

5) This one is most important. Nearly everyone who writes about the Ukrainian (or Russian) personality describes how people are completely difference once they let you into their world.

The scar of Socialism is only ninety (or seventy for Western Ukraine) years deep. The iceberg goes deeper. There was life and commerce and civilization for millenia before Socialism.

So, in these first four points, I am not describing the soul of Ukrainians, I am describe the shell which contains it. I am attempting to help foreign visitors understand what are sometimes off-putting first impressions. They are worth working through.

I’m optimistic about Ukraine.