After spending most of the summer travelling around and training in central Europe, some of the most obvious cultural differences only become apparent upon coming home.
As an athlete and a media manager, I am online virtually all day. If it’s not for work-related research or projects, it’s for my personal promotion and browsing. I spend a lot of time every day looking through social media and consciously noticing trends in products, lifestyles and politics. During the day, before and after sessions, if I have nothing to do and there isn’t any stimulating conversation circulating around the training group, my immediate reflex is to pick up my phone. I am highly exposed, all the time, to places and people that are not in my immediate environment. Social media is one powerful version of these things.
I recently raced at the British championships in London. In a sports environment, my online habits are not unusual – in fact, they are probably more modest than a lot of people surrounding me in the cafes, watersports centre and public transport. Everyone has a mobile device; it isn’t a tool limited to a certain place. It is on you constantly, so it’s more of an extension of yourself than a means of communication. In Britain, we have an expectation that if we call someone, they will pick up or be available in some way. That’s where it hit me: during our whole time in Europe, I obviously had work and personal promotion obligations that required me to be online at certain times in the day. But in Slovakia, it is not as normal or polite to sit on your phone in public. Sure, if you have a phone and it rings, you pick it up. However, the knee-jerk reaction to social silence is not to then fill it with abstract information about other people and places in the world. People don’t just sit on their phones. I can actually remember leaving for whole days of training and socialising without taking my mobile with me – which would be extremely unusual for me in Britain. It is even more apparent when I look back on our training camp in the French Alps. There was a lack of internet, which I think helped the situation, but nowadays almost everybody with a contract phone has some kind of access to mobile data. I don’t think I saw a single smartphone for the whole time we were in L’Argentiere, which upon reflection seems unusual given the current British culture of ‘if it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen’.
Something I’ve always found interesting about social media is the need for ‘quick-satisfaction’ information. Pictures, videos and other posts are more successful when they have an extremely quick ‘grab’ – something to catch your attention, that is probably relevant to your life and interests – and then a relatively quick satisfaction rate. In videos, the satisfaction rate is at the conclusion of the video, when a problem is solved or a story finished. When you compare this kind of satisfaction rate to other rewarding activities such as reading, outdoor sports and real-life conversation, it is unbelievably fast. I think that in Britain, this fast rate of ‘getting what you want’ from a single social interaction, such as swiping down your newsfeed on Facebook, is conditioning people to be less willing to participate for long stretches of time in other social activities that require commitment and effort to gain satisfaction.
The consistent factor in the places that we visited was the setting; Liptovsky Mikulaš and L’Argentiere La Besée are both mountain towns, with a high rate of tourism from around the world. Liptovksy is also a university town, which may explain why there seemed to be a slightly higher rate of mobile device use. London is a highly urbanised environment, with a huge amount of people in close proximity to one another. Perhaps social interaction at that point is a mix of being uninterested in your immediate surroundings, and too much effort to be aware of and communicate with the various people around you.
But I recently read an article that described the treatment of mobile devices in places like Japan, where it is less common to see people using them in public. In a culture where politeness and social ritual are key parts of society, mobile devices seem to have a much lower standing in importance. Perhaps in a culture that has a much higher awareness of how individuals communicate with one another, mobile devices in this context simply don’t fit in with person to person contact. Japan is one of the most densely populated places in the world. So why do people in London seem to have such a high attachment to their phones?
I think that mobile use in a lot of modern societies revolves around mostly social media and the internet. I also think that culturally, different forms of entertainment have different levels of importance. In mountain cultures, people seem to have grown up with and prefer being outside. I also think that this sort of culture enforces face to face interaction, and people are less likely to fall into the quick-satisfaction trap of regular internet browsing. In Britain, there is a resounding implication that social silence is a negative but inevitable thing. Social media occupies hands, attention and also satisfies an interactive need, without having to provide one side of the communication.
My experience of Slovakia showed me that social silence is inevitable and accepted, so an alternative occupation for hands and mind is unnecessary. In France, there was less than no time during the chaos of waking up, going for a session, getting lunch and tumbling through the day in a whirlwind of exhausting activity, for using a mobile phone. In that environment, social media just becomes laughably inane. But in my experience of London culture, it is relevant, easy, and completely normal to spend a lot of time, in company, on your phone.