Friday, December 6, 2013

Personal Views on Greek Mentalities

In an earlier article, a reader asked why I no longer thought that the Euro was the right currency for Greece and I responded as follows: "If the Euro is a currency which doesn't fit Greece's economic capabilities (and the culture of Greeks!), which I have felt for some time now, then there are only two options: (a) get Greece's economic capabilities so that they fit the currency or (b) change the currency to fit Greece. It would be better for Greece, long-term, to get its economic capabilities to where they fit the Euro but I have given up hope that Greece can do that".

I was then asked whether I could substantiate my feelings with factual arguments. Another reader said that his ONE eye-opener had been reading Nikos Dimou's booklet about "The Misfortune of Being Greek". He wanted to know whether I had such a ONE eye-openener, too.

In reply, I used the well-known strategy which one uses when one does not have a specific answer to a specific question: I wrote a long story in reply, hoping that readers would read their own answers into it. Below is my reply.

Not specific hard facts, rather soft facts influence this judgment of mine (which, I agree, may be totally wrong). It is a judgment which has grown over time (‘riped’ so to speak). Every once in a while, I find myself backtracking in this judgment but such periods usually don’t last very long at this point of the game.

I, too, think that a lot of answers can be found in Dimou’s booklet because I think it is really a question of mentality, national character, etc. I don’t want to put a value judgment on mentality and/or national character; I just want to recognize and accept that such things do exist and they develop over centuries. Alexis Zorbas led a life which, from a value structure standpoint, was about the opposite of the value structure which I had been raised with. From that standpoint, I should fully criticize the man’s conduct. And yet, I – like probably many people – envy him more than my mind can pull itself together to rationally criticize him. Why should he be criticized? Because if everyone behaved the way he did, society would fall apart. The point is, however: life would be so much more boring if there weren't people like Zorbas; if there were no Greeks, for that matter.

Let me quote Dahrendorf (from 1995): “For Italy, periodic devaluations are much more useful than a fixed exchange rate and for France, higher government expenditures are more meaningful than a rigid adherence to stability criteria (which are, above all, an advantage for Germany)”. That’s what I try to say about Greek mentalities and value structures. There are apples and oranges in life; thank God there are! Apples may fit the Euro; oranges may not.

Strangely enough, most of the Greeks I meet in day-to-day life are as ‘normal’ as everyone else in Central Europe or elsewhere. We have rational discussions and where we disagree, we agree to disagree. When I am with such people (including some very smart university grads), I come away with the (temporary) hope that Greece will eventually make it in a ‘normal’ world. Those are experiences with individual Greeks. My experiences with Greeks as a collective quickly bring me down to reality (by ‘collective’ I mean mostly what one hears, reads and observes through the media).

So, contrary to you, I don’t have ONE single event. Instead, it is a gut feeling that, after 4 years of rather dramatic crisis, one ought to feel a tendency, a wish for real change. Frankly, I don’t see Greece all that different today than 4 years ago (except a lot poorer) and I don’t sense much of an energetic wish for radical change running through society. 

However, there is ONE experience I had many years ago which I am now reminded of very often. The American bank where I spent my first career had 3 large units in Greece and I was supposed to take over country management in 1986 (shortly before that happened, my bank sold the Greek operations to NatWest and that was the end of my wife’s dream of returning to Greece, but that is a different and very complicated story…). We were based in Argentina then and I once had the visit of a colleague/friend, an American who had been country manager in Greece in the 1970s. He felt he had to coach me a bit as regarded my future job in Greece and said some like this: “You know our job application form has sections on ‘personal strengths’ and ‘areas for improvement’. You will find that Greek job applicants leave the ‘areas for improvement’ blank. When I first noticed this, I thought they were inhibited to put anything in writing and would prefer to discuss this in the personal interview. The strange thing was that, even in the personal interview, they would not volunteer any ‘personal areas for improvement’. Not because they seemed inhibited or embarrassed or anything like that. No, they were quite natural about it. They simply could not address the issue that they might have ‘personal areas for improvement’. I should add that we never had anything but the best experiences with local staff!"

A good friend of mine, a Brit who is now retired, spent the last 10 years of his career as a bank consultant based in Greece (his wife is Greek). His projects would always take him to far away places. I once asked him why he wouldn’t seek consulting mandates from Greek banks. His answer? “That would be masochistic! You cannot consult Greeks because they already have all the answers. They will not accept your advice. They will, instead, pretend that, whatever you tell them, they knew it already, anyway”.

In my early years of schooling in Austria, we learned about ancient Greeks' themes like ‘know thyself’, ‘accept yourself’, ‘know that you know nothing’, etc. etc. Somehow, it seems that these themes got lost through the centuries.

One of the key aspects of the Greek mentality, to me, is this ‘susceptibility to flattery’. It is referred to in the Encyclopedia article but also in a briefing which a former US ambassadador once cabled to Washington (published by Wikileaks). He said: “The Greeks are susceptible to flattery and quick to be offended by a perceived slight”. This susceptibility to flattery, one might also think of it as a bit of gullibility, is, to me, a landmark characteristic. Greek voters seem to fall for politicians who are good at playing on these susceptibilities. Someone like Alexis Tsipras strikes me as an expert at this game.

I have visited, as a guest, all 5 or 6 Rotary Clubs in Thessaloniki. Between them, I could easily form at least one complete Greek government of responsible and professional leaders who know what they are doing. Add to that the thousands and thousands of Greeks who have the same capabilities. Consider that against the certainly millions of decent Greeks who would like to be governed by decent leaders. The resources are there! They just don’t seem to come together.

The widely spread ‘Greek irrationality’ is part of the great charme of Greeks and it can be a lot of fun to watch; in relaxed times, I hasten to add. In stressed times, that irrationality can take one’s nerves apart (and I say this after close to 40 years of marriage with a Greek…). Colleagues at my first employer who had spent time in Greece would crack the joke that “Greeks gave the logic to the world. The only problem is that the world never gave it back to them”. Good for a lot of laughter. When it plays out in serious reality, it can drive someone nuts.

In conclusion: since I didn’t have a short answer to your question, I had to write this long piece but I, nevertheless, hope that you can understand what I am trying to get across.


  1. Sometimes, we can find " a part or all the truth" or an answer, from the words and experiences that rational people suggest-say. But, as we also demand a direct answer, or we try to find one, we moreover demand at no time and a "solution" no matter if many Greeks understand it how in everyone suit him. Deficiency.


  2. Kostas Karkagiannis ‏@KKarkagiannis 6h commented as follows on twitter:

    @kleingut I think a deep and genuine distaste for accepting all and any personal responsibility is the most defining characteristic of GR

    1. Believe me when I say that Greece is not the only culture that has a "deep and genuine distaste for accepting all and any personal responsibility" - it's just that the German way of not accepting this happens to work in the current situation we find ourselves in.

      The one thing that marks out a successful entrepreneur is a sense of responsibility - and with it comes real advantages over those who don't.

  3. You imply it better, without mentioning. Citizens with their behavior shape the concept of individual responsibility only, or also principles which the coordinate state defines e.g laws how should be approached, imposed ?
    The German citizen usually knows that if he makes a driving offense he may punished , there is responsibility , because maybe he has educated. The Greek favors personal element,is trying to escape punishment -with cunning-. Maybe the weather,the spontaneity
    this is, for laughs, pleasant always to negotiate!
    So the German legislature not only calculates the expressed willingness of German citizens for the state they want, but I think he is taking a more strict interpretation about the obligations of the citizen towards the state.Personal responsibility is a vital issue but not only. Why usually Greeks when in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, US, Canada,Australia adjust their behavior accordingly? Because they see "all the view".


    1. You hit the nail on the head!

      I think it is fair to say that it is accepted that people's attitudes and principles are a product of their environment. Trading Places is an excellent movie that portrays this.

      You compare the same person who lived in Greece and who now lives in Germany. The person fits in and adapts to the "culture"

      What is the culture, again, government is the one with the stick/gun to people's heads. People have to do what the government wants, behave in a way the government wants.

      Why the government? Why does Lidl's culture not effect the population? Because if people don't like it they can go elsewhere, they don't have to change, people do not have that choice with the government.

      Let us stop talking about the culture and mentalities in relation to economics! When you get to the fundamental stuff like honesty and non-violence all the people in the world are basically the same.


  4. Nikos Dimou managed to build a whole career on his "Misfortune of being a Greek" (his only work that will be remembered). Actually, the reason for the book's enormous success is that the Greeks, in general, love to criticize their nation's flaws. In which other country a song like this would become a huge hit?

    Like Nikos Dimou, millions of Greeks feel unfortunate to have been born in "Elladistan" (and not, let's say, Sweden). For them -to paraphrase Sartre- "hell is other Greeks". What Dimou did, in reality, was to express in a slightly more sophisticated way commonly heard laments as "Greece is a bordello" or "We are not a proper people, mister". So, speaking of Greek mentalities, Dimou himself is not that different from his compatriots. Except from the fact that, due to his wealthy background, he combines the Greek inferiority complex with the "Marie Antoinette syndrome".


  5. Über den griechischen Geist, die griechische Mentalität und die griechische Wirtschaftskultur habe ich bei Ihnen, Herr Kastner, bereits vor über 2 Jahren ausführlich gepostet.


    Unterschiedliche Wirtschaftskulturen und Mentalitäten

    Ich stelle noch einmal zusammenfassend fest:
    Die Euro- und Integrationsillusionisten täuschen sich fundamental über die kulturelle Heterogenität, Ungleichartigkeit und Verschiedenartigkeit der europäischen Nationen; ihre unterschiedlichen Wirtschaftskulturen, Mentalitäten, Lebens- und Arbeitsauffassungen.
    Die griechische Drachme, der portugiesische Escudo, die spanische Pesete, die italienische Lira und auch der französische Franc waren in ihrer langen Geschichte stets Weichwährungen, weil in diesen Volkswirtschaften „südländisch“ gewirtschaftet wurde. Das verdrängen die Euro-Illusionisten.
    Ich erinnere an die Diskussion, die der italienische Philosoph Giorgio Agamben Anfang des Jahres 2013 ausgelöst hat:
    Que l’Empire latin contre-attaque! (Das lateinische Imperium schlägt zurück!)

    Agamben befürchtet, daß die romanisch geprägten Südländer in der durch den wirtschaftlichen Hegemon Deutschland beherrschten Eurozone ihre kulturellen Selbstverständlichkeiten und ihre spezifische Lebensweise einbüßten. Sie seien gezwungen, Tugenden und Einstellungen sowie ein Arbeitsethos und einen Lebensstil zu übernehmen, wie sie der deutschen protestantischen Ethik entsprächen, was ein nicht hinzunehmender Angriff auf die lateinisch-mediterrane Identität und Mentalität darstelle. Sich den Imperativen einer kapitalistischen Marktwirtschaft zu unterwerfen „würde zum Verschwinden eines Kulturguts führen, das vor allem in einer Lebensform liegt.“ (Agamben) Die besondere lateinisch-mediterrane Kultur gilt es also zu verteidigen.

    ehemals PC-Support und Netzwerkadministration
    Hamburg Bangkok Düsseldorf
    Ich verleugne meine Muttersprache nicht.

  6. Eine Art Post Scriptum:

    Die Fete des Club Méditerranée

    Deutschland muß raus aus diesem Euro! Wir brauchen kleinere Währungsverbünde. Dann können die Samarases, Lettas, Hollandes, Rajoys, Barrosos, Draghis mit ihrem alternativlosen Euro endlich machen, was sie wollen. Sie können Euros drucken, bis die Druckerschwärze teurer ist als die Scheine. Sie können sich gegenseitig retten, herzlich gerne auch täglich mehrmals. Sie können eine Haftungsunion, Transferunion, Fiskalunion, Bankenunion einrichten und sie können einen Schuldentilgungspakt beschließen und Eurobonds aufnehmen. Sie können milliardenschwere Konjunktur- und Wachstumsprogramme auflegen und ihre Bevölkerungen damit beglücken.
    Dann hat der Club Méditerranée seine uneingeschränkte Souveränität zurück und kann in seinen dann wiedergewonnenen lateinisch-mediterranen Lebensformen unter Frankreichs Führung schwelgen und feiern bis er in Rotwein und Champagner absäuft.

    ehemals PC-Support und Netzwerkadministration
    Hamburg Bangkok Düsseldorf
    After a apoplectic stroke I can use my computer, mouse and keyboard just with the fingers of the untrained left hand.
    I beg your indulgence.

  7. Unanswerable, but instead reflection. I and my wife at home in Corfu saw a low budget film directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari. "We built a colony of factories on sheep pens". These were my thoughts about 'Attenberg' - Greece as grey. Almost unimaginable until you start spending winters here and spend less time by the sea.

  8. Maybe as a Greek I can offer some insight.

    The problem with Greece is that there's too much social cannibalism. Greeks just try to make do at the expense of others. They steal at the expense of others. This is what all the corruption and high prices amount to.

    Not everybody is capable of doing that. For example if you are an employee in the private sector you are unable to. These people express their social hostility in other ways, like aggressive driving.

    This could get fixed with harsh legislature, but it's unlikely it ever will.

    Business-wise, since you like to deal with that aspect Klaus, the problem with Greeks is that they're only capable of opening two types of businesses: food and drink businesses (i.e. bars and restaurants), and businesses that sell merchandise that others produce (kiosks, clothes shops).

    Tourism is taking advantage of your natural resources (sun and beaches and ancient temples). Hardly a sophisticated endeavor.

    That's all there is to it. In a nutshell, Greece is a third-world country that a lot of it's citizens (those that are bullies) happen to have a good standard of living due to irrelevant reasons.

    1. The problem with Greece is that there is a small minority of the population who thinks they are perfect and it is Greeks in general that have the problem.

      Let me take your response apart piece by piece.

      Greeks "steal" at the expense of others. In Greece only? Please. It happens everywhere.

      Employees can’t steal? From who? The state? If that is what you mean it sounds like your problem is with the state not the people.

      Aggressive driving? In Greece? Again, you must be joking, Greeks are the most tolerant drivers I have ever encountered anywhere in Europe by a MASSIVE margin. If you want to see aggressive driving, go the UK.

      Greeks can only do food and drink? Perhaps you are unaware of all the masters’ qualified students in Greece unable to find work. Perhaps you are unaware of the any Greek engineers working for foreign firms, or Greek doctors working abroad. The fact is qualified Greeks are forced to move abroad to get the pay they need because the government makes it so difficult to do business in Greece. To give a recent example, Constantine Laskaris, a Greek has been appointed chief of design at Tesla.

      About tourism, I have never heard catering for tourists being denigrated before.

      A third world country? Maybe, but it has a third world government that is for sure.

      Until Greek realise that the government is the source of their problems and NOT their fellow Greeks they will continue to be the victim of foreigners and their international policies. Greeks need to lead the voluntarist movement


    2. You are delusional.

      It happens everywhere to a degree. In Greece it is the norm. Let's mention a few examples. First, the corrupted public sector that gets extra ("black") money to get it's job done, from the city-planning department, to the tax office, to the doctors in the hospitals, to public insurance. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Now, let's move to the so-called closed proffesions and the myriad laws that protect them directly (set prices) or indirectly (taxes that benefit them), like lawyers, pharmacists, taxi drivers, journalists etc etc. The Greek private sector isn't much better. It's inablility to compete in a globalized market is only matched by the high prices it asks of the merchandise it imports, or generally of it's services to the domestic population, sometimes in co-operation with the deliberately inadequate public-sector, as in the case of supportive private education. And let's not even begin with tax evasion.

      In short, everybody tries to steal from one another, apart from those that can't.

      Greeks are the worst and most aggressive drivers in Europe, and that's why we have the most fatal driving accidents in Europe, it's as simple as that.

      Qualified Greeks working abroad are just that, a minority that works abroad as employees. The vast majority of Greeks (that still reside in Greece) can only go abroad to work as low-skill labor. This is a result of the very poor Greek education. Despite of the abundance of diplomas, the results (i.e. the state of the country) speak for themselves.

      Greece is well and truly a rotten place. Greece isn't a society, it is a jungle, and in the jungle the strongest survive.

    3. Greeks I meet would agree with you sentiments. What they do not understand is that people are a product of their environment and that is a fact.

      You identify the problems, the ones with the guns are greedy, detached, feel like the world owes them a living and that Greek taxpayers are scum.

      Then you have the "protected" professions who also think the world owes them a living.

      You understand the situation but then you attack the "free" private sector for the way they behave under this system.

      The shop you go to where you think you have been ripped off. They are working in the same economic environment as you and plus if you do not like it you can go elsewhere, you are not forced to buy from these people. (Unless you believe all the retailers are working together to drive up prices? Or on the other hand, is it more likely that all the shops have the same regulations and taxes to deal with and that is why the prices are what they are?)

      About Greece’s in ability to compete. Read this. There is only one reason why Greece is not the dominant economic power in Europe.

      “Greeks are the worst and most aggressive drivers in Europe, and that's why we have the most fatal driving accidents in Europe, it's as simple as that.” I have never seen a driver being attacked with steering lock for no apparent reason in Greece. I have in the UK. I have never seen a person get out of a car in Greece and starting kicking and smashing another person’s car for no reason. It is common in the UK.

      You simply cannot compare the two countries.

      So why are the road deaths so high in Greece? The quality of the roads does not help and again, who is supposed to look after the roads?

      You look at the geography of Greece compared to the UK for example. England has no mountain roads. England has no wilderness, England has no wild animals, England has no extreme heat, England has 95% less motorcycles ( a conservative guess), England has newer cars, England maintain the roads to a much higher standard, England does not give someone a license who literally cannot drive. Again, we know who controls the issuing of driving licenses.

      Greek education. I did not go to high school in Greece but the Greeks I have met have language skills 99.9% of Brits could only dream of and lets not get started on math’s and physics. Brit kids are years behind.

      In summary, you say everyone in Greece is fighting each other. I get it. You say it is because Greeks are stupid. I say Greeks are adapting to their environment. Put a Buddhist in Greece, he will adapt in the same way as a Greek.

      Let me put it another way. If what you say is true. I.e. the Greek people are the problem, then why are there not German, Swedish, Japanese companies coming to Greece to build factories and laboratories **and** staffing it with their own people? I mean, who would not want to live in Greece?

      It is because they know they would have to be completely nuts to expose their businesses to Greece’s third world, black hole government.

      Everyone in the world would love to retire to Greece, or have a second home here. There is a reason they do not and it is not because of the crappy weather, the ugly scenery, or tasteless food.

      The reason they do not is that the Greek government is going to abuse them.

      The problem in Greece is the government and only the government. Get a voluntarist political system in Greece and all of the problems you highlight will disappear. I promise.


    4. Politician ,government are the mirror image of society by which they were elected and govern on their behalf

  9. apart from changing the currency to fit Greece there is another possibility , change the eurozone to behave like different currencies - have you heard of the Brussels Macro Imbalance Procedure

  10. Wow, lots of emotion, I agree with all of the above, even the one that it's the governments fault and not the voters, thats what democracy is all about.