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"The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences."
- Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) 1
This particular quote acquired from a case study in the Business World magazine embodies the purpose of my observations of culture. In order to successfully grasp the ideas of human differences my first option was to go to the airport and observe different people from different backgrounds. This location was an excellent place because of the diversity of people, the traffic, the atmosphere, and the places of interest (shops, restaurants, etc).
The format of the observations is mainly in sequential order as they occurred. I sat in a location where I could observe the gates, the restaurants, the restrooms and the shuttle bus stop all around me. I split my hour by observing each location for fifteen minutes. Firstly, the setting of the airport was quite extravagant with state-of-the-art facilities, professional staff, clean surroundings, modern architecture and beautiful showpieces. There were phrases in all languages all over the place as well as flags. The arrangement of the space was wide and open, providing visibility to everything in the building. A map of the building is provided on the last page of this report to gain a better understanding of the layout.
The first place I started at was the food court. There were many fast-food joints to be found in the food court; they were situated at strategic locations, which will be explained in the 'Cultural Rules' section. Some of these restaurants were Asian Chao, Atlanta Bread Company, Bistro Del Sol, Domino's, Edy's Ice Cream, Houlihan's, Paschal's Southern Cuisine, Seattle's Best Coffee and Wendy's. Majority of the people went to restaurants such as Atlanta Bread Company, Paschal's Southern Cuisine and Wendy's. People rarely walked into Edy's Ice Cream and Seattle's Best Coffee. There were a good number younger people in their mid-20 and 30's in business suits who frequented into Atlanta Bread Company for a quick lunch before they sort of rushed to their terminal for their flight. Others sat leisurely, read a newspaper, or worked on their laptops. They generally sat at a two-person table and were not bothered at all. Their meals were mainly a soup and a sandwich; some females opted for just a salad. People in Wendy's and Paschal's Southern Cuisine were mainly Caucasian, middle-aged and looked like they were going on a holiday due to the bright casual shirts and shorts. Their meals mainly consisted of fried chicken, steak, some kind of pilau and platters and platters of side dishes including loads of ranch. They were loud, sort of boisterous, friendly with everyone (including the waiters), and had a strong Southern accent. An interesting observation I made, that occurred in about 95% of the couples that were sitting at a table, was the seating arrangement. Usually, the couples always sat across from each other as opposed to right next to each other. The cleaning staff at the airport was very prompt about cleaning the previously occupied tables once the people left. They regularly emptied out the trashcans, rearranged the chairs and were very polite. Not to be racially biased, but the majority of the people who cleaned up after themselves were of Caucasian and East Asian descent. Whereas, the people who left their trays behind or did not clean up after themselves were predominantly of African descent, Hispanics and South Asian descent. There was quite an emphasis on sanitation and hygiene due to the number of hand sanitizers per square foot, the CDC signs at every corner and hand wipes located at every desk.
Next, I observed the terminal gates for Korean Air and the stores located by it. Some common trends I noticed were the flow of crowds into the gates, the order in which people were checking in and who visited the stores before boarding or after landing. Every ten minutes, there would be a group of passengers boarding for a flight. Many of these passengers were middle-aged, business officials, elites, or foreign people. They were mostly quiet people keeping to their own business. Everyone at the terminal seemed distant because not many people were talking to each other unless they knew each other. The people who were travelling alone were either on their laptop, on their phone or staring into space. There didn't seem to be any idle conversation or any attempts to make conversation with strangers at gates. The order of boarding was the handicapped, women with children, business class and then the economy passengers. People were especially courteous, helpful and polite to the handicapped and the women with children. There was lots of gift buying for people who were leaving the country for a while. The elites (mainly the ones in business suits) bought mostly alcohol, perfumes and cigarettes. The 'normal' people bought more chocolates, souvenirs, t-shirts and postcards.
The third site of observation was the bus shuttle stop. Majority of the people boarding and getting off were foreign. Probably close to 60 percent of the total people seemed to be foreign, mainly South Asian or East Asian. The rest of the people waiting at the stops were majority Caucasian, few numbers of African Americans and other ethnicities. Similar to the situation at the gates in the terminals, the people seemed distant and did not talk to one another unless they knew each other. When the shuttle bus arrived at the stop everyone moved towards the bus but waited tolerantly for the other passengers on the bus to get off first. Once everyone boarded the bus, there did not appear to be any pattern or rationale behind the arrangement of seating. Some men offered their seats to females. There was no discrimination is terms of who was sitting where, each person just found a seat and sat down. People on the bus were just looking out the window or doing something on their laps.
The fourth location I observed were the restrooms in the back corner next to all the restaurants. Some of the main behaviors I noticed were that females always travelled in pairs or groups to the bathroom, whereas males went in alone. In the case of children, the fathers or a male guardian went in along with the male child and the same with the female child. And last, but not least, females that walked in at the same time as their male counterparts came out of the restroom at least 10 minutes after the males came out.
Several inferences can be made about the culture differences and norms in this airport. Starting with the food court, the selection of restaurants for the food court reflects the Southern culture of the people. Fast food joints are not as common in other parts of America, such as the northeast, so it was obvious that these people prefer their soul food such as chicken, steak, bacon, and other rich items over Asian food which is not exactly their cultural food. In joints such as Atlanta Bread Company and Seattle's Best Coffee, the people who frequented were young, mainly single and people in business suits, indicating that they are conscious of what they eat, choosing a soup or a salad over the hamburger and fries one gets at Wendy's. On the other hand, the people who were going on a holiday were more laid back about their food choices preferring to eat at a southern kitchen. Their mannerisms and interactions also indicate that they are sociable and hospitable, what many Southerners are known for. One can also notice class differences in the restaurants they pick. The people who ate at Atlanta Bread Company were more of the "elite" class that was passing through the airport on business or silent leisure. The people at Paschal's Southern Cuisine were kind of your average Joe kind of people that consider taking a airplane and going somewhere a big deal, so they try to make the most of it. The seating arrangement when eating is important because people prefer eye-to-eye contact when talking to the other person, which is quite uncomfortable to do if they're are sitting directly beside each other and eating. In most households there are some common ground rules many parents teach their children such as being polite, helping others and cleaning up their mess. These widespread rules are remarkably evident in the Caucasian 'race' when they clean up their tables and pushed in their chairs. This same gesture was not as evident in other minorities most probably due to the feeling that this is not their country, so why should they bother. Nevertheless, this is just a possibility. Others include different environments when growing up, feeling like it's the airport cleaning people's job, etc. The main reason for hand wipes and hand sanitizers located in every possible location is because airports are the most likely places to catch the flu and other diseases due to the degree of global travel involved (remember the swine flu pandemic). So that inherent fear of the flu makes people want to practice cleanliness and keeping the "germs" away.
In the terminal gate some cultural rules that can be established are class differences in buying habits, season of travel and mannerisms. The majority of the passengers at the gate were middle-aged businessmen, or foreigners traveling long distances. It is evident that these businessmen frequently travel because they are probably doing their presentations or research on a business deal on their laptops. The foreign travelers are probably elderly people visiting they children in the United States for a period of time and now are heading back to their native country (South Korea in this case). While the business officials had duty-free bags of alcohol, cigarettes and perfumes, the "commoners" had duty-free bags of chocolates, t-shirts, souvenirs, and postcards. This choice in gifts exhibits the intent of their visit. While business people probably regulars at airports, so just buy classy items for themselves or their significant other. The "commoners" want to capture the essence of the place so they buy memorable gifts that they can show and share with people back in their home country.
The underlying cultural norm for the shuttle stop was courtesy. The wait on the bus, allowing people to get off first, not scrambling to get a seat on the bus, and priority seating for ladies are all signs of common courtesy and consideration. The fact that majority of the people on the bus were foreigners displays an important principle that makes America different from other cultures. In other countries, owning your own car is a privilege, not a commodity, as in the USA. Americans tend to value personal possessions and take public services for granted, such as this bus shuttle. This statement is supported by the fact that the shuttle's first stop was the car rental place across the road. Most of the people that got down were either business elites or Americans. The minorities stayed on the bus to go to other locations without the need of a personal vehicle. Another cultural norm is personal space that is more critical in American societies than in many other societies across the globe. American societies concentrate on the individualistic approach, expressing independence and self gain. This tends to give the impression of less sociability, narrow-mindedness and self-centeredness. This is evident in the shuttle due to the minimal interaction between people who didn't know each other. They just looked out the window or minded their own business.
The main cultural norm obtained from the restroom scene is the difference in behaviors between males and females. The main reasons why females always travel in groups to public restrooms is because of the fear of people watching them when they come out of the bathroom alone, 'safety in numbers', chitchat, and the fact that they don't like to be in public places alone. Males really don't care about that, they just do their business and come out. Females take longer in the restrooms because they feel that they have to look presentable when they walk out of there, not tucking in their shirts or fixing their hair while they walk out. The main reason for a male/male child escort and female/female child escort was to make sure the child doesn't get scared and is comfortable. This places focus on the comfort of the child and his/her welfare.
There were no serious challenges with this project. However, it did feel a quite awkward to be taking notes on different people while sitting under a fountain statue. I feel that my project, personally, would have had more depth and analysis if I were able to interview people. The main challenge with observing people in an airport is that most people are from different cultural backgrounds, so it is quite hard to state exactly why they did what. I would also want to know what they are thinking when they do instinctive behaviors such as throwing their trash away, pushing their chair in, saying "sorry", "excuse me" and "thanks". As for myself, saying, "excuse me" after I sneeze is instinctive, it is just an innate behavior that just automatically happens without me thinking about it. That is exactly what a cultural norm is as well. For example, after I sneeze, someone says, "bless you". Is saying that phrase after anyone sneezes instinctive for them as well? Participant observations can be complicated generally since human behavior isn't always simple to understand. Human motives and behaviors are intricate and a background in many other areas of human and cultural studies is needed to accurately understand human interactions with each other and their daily lives. Another challenge with this project is looking at the behaviors of people and trying to determine what is an "American" norm versus what is normal everywhere else. A lot of objectivity is required in order to successfully accomplish this task. Cultural relativism and ethnocentric ideals play a key role in trying to objectively observe human behavior. For example, a behavior that you may assume is a social trend may be a stereotype that has been in your head for a while. Therefore, open-mindedness and cultural relativism should be employed in order to productively observe and document human behaviors.