Over the past few days about 6 people have emailed me this New York Times article: Do Argentine’s Need Therapy? Pull Up a Couch.
While outside the typical “economics with a twist” scope of this blog, I wanted to address this because I believe it provides a window into the soul of this confusing nation.
It is important to understand the value that Argentines place on feelings. One day at work, a colleague of mine was staying home for a few days because he was feeling depressed. Half joking, I openly commented why he didn’t just cry in the bathroom for a good ten minutes then pretend he’d gotten sick like everyone else did. The looks that shot my way following my offhand comment were priceless – horrified, shocked, and utterly disapproving.
Indeed, Argentina values emotional self-exploration in monetary terms as well. Seeing a psychologist regularly is included in the majority of private health plans, and viewed as necessary to healthy living as regular visits to the dentist and family doctor.
I had the distinct pleasure of living with a bright and highly talented young woman studying psychology here in Buenos Aires for one year. One of my favorite evening activities was hearing about her classes on Freudian psychology that were required coursework and laughing with disbelief that this lunacy was actually providing a meaningful foundation for thought. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of male anatomy, but I’m pretty sure a penis would ruin some of my favorite outfits and frankly make me look more like a drag queen than a serious professional.
A friend of mine once suggested this difference stems from the culture of the protestant work ethic vs. the catholic culture of waiting for salvation. While I do think this has some merit, I think the current runs deeper.
Argentines don’t merely indulge themselves in their own feelings; they like to pry into the feelings of others as well, even in a professional context. In 99% of business meetings that I have here, I am asked how old I am, and how I feel about being in Argentina. Not only would these questions be considered wildly inappropriate in any business context in the USA, I am then carefully observed and probed on how I respond to these inquiries. If I display affront or emotion, I am branded “hysterica”. If not? Cold and American. In essence – I am valued based on my feelings rather than my accomplishments.
Now what does this (admittedly self-indulgent) little cultural opinion have to do with Argentina’s rickety economy? Actually quite a lot. As the author of this rather critical blog, I am frequently asked what I think Argentina should do to fix their economy and indeed their country, and this is a difficult question to answer without spurring an intense debate that drifts towards the social consequences of austerity, or even whether or not I agree with IMF policies or the Washington Consensus. And these debates are not without merit – solving Argentina’s economic quandary is not as simple as loosening trade restrictions, implementing intelligent monetary policies, and mopping up the culture of corruption and graft.
In answer to the questions posed by the NY times, Do Argentines Need Therapy, I would reply no. Argentines need to learn to cry in the bathroom for ten minutes, come out and say they were sick to their stomach and have allergies, and move on. The answers for the future will not be found by wallowing in the past and indulging in circular debates on issues like the Malvinas/Falklands, or throwing around blame and denying responsibility for public needs like transportation.
I have gotten so much both personally and professionally out of living and working here, but if Argentina picks anything up from me I sincerely hope that it is a healthy dose of sucking it up and moving forward.