Cultural Habits

by Richard Brennan

In the Alexander profession we are aware of personal habits - our own and those of our pupils as well as the people around us. We have adopted many of these habits through imitation of those close to us, or when trying to cope with unfavourable conditions in our environment. We often think of these "conditions" as being an angry parent, a hostile sibling or the unfriendly atmosphere at school or at work, but it can often be the broader cultural habits that get missed.

A couple of years ago I was standing waiting to be served in a small grocery store in Australia, when a man unknowingly jumped the queue in front of me. The store-keeper, aware that I had been waiting, turned to this other man and in a mild but firm voice said "back off!" I, with my European politeness, was quite taken aback at the store-keeper's directness and the incident has stayed in my mind ever since. It was not long, however, before I realised that that was very common in Australia, and no offence was meant. It also became apparent from frequent comments that the English were seen as being very indirect. This got me thinking about "cultural habits". Through subsequent observation and experience it became very apparent that not only do we have personal habits that are unique to ourselves, but we also adopt many habits of speech, behaviour and movement simply because we live in a certain country or society.

Of course I am making sweeping generalisations and obviously I cannot include everyone in the cultural categories. Yet it can said it is more likely that an American will have a habit of talking loudly in public than an English person and that an Irish person will start a conversation while waiting for a bus than someone from Sweden. In the same way, it is possible to perceive these differences in their gestures or movements. Just think for a moment about the mannerisms and patterns of movement that Japanese people display, compared to that of an Italian or of a native of the Caribbean.

It is easy to see the habits of other races or cultures while travelling, but much more difficult to recognise our own, when they surround us every day. Perhaps this is why people travelling feel liberated when there are away from their country for any length of time-their habits no longer "feel" quite so right and normal to

Just recently, while looking for a new place to live, I embarked upon a five-month round-the-world trip which included Europe, the USA, Tahiti, Raratonga, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and eventually Ireland. Each country I visited was at a different stage of development. On my travels I sometimes stayed in places where it was possible to order room service via the television's remote control, hardly moving a muscle, or while cruising on a luxury ship around exotic South Pacific Islands. Other parts of my journey involved visiting simple Tahitian villages and taking part in the ancient kava ceremony in Fiji. In some of the places I visited, new technology was becoming available by the day, whereas in others life had changed little in the last thousand years-the local people would certainly not have had any concept of deadlines or relaxing down at the local health club.

Due to the contrasts in the places I visited my journey became, at times, a very surreal experience. One day I would be encountering people who were still living in houses made out of banana leaves and sleeping on mud floors, with barely enough food to feed themselves and their families, and the very next day I would be living in a modern city where people were working frantically in front of computer screens in high-rise office buildings, or talking as fast as possible into their cellular telephones while stuck in heavily congested traffic. Because of the extreme contrast, it became more obvious than ever that the people in these cities were under far more stress and therefore moved in an entirely different way to their less modern counterparts.

Although many of these people had both wealth and technology to help them in their daily lives, their manner seemed more abrupt-and even hostile at times-and they seemed to be generally more miserable and self-centred. It was actually unusual to see them smiling. By contrast, in the less technologically advanced cultures the people were not nearly so goal-orientated; as a result, they appeared to laugh and smile more often. These people were much friendlier, had time to sit and talk, were more easy-going and, as far as I could tell in the short time I was there, generally seemed happier and more fulfilled. It was not long before I noticed how I changed to adapt to the way in which other people treated me. If they were friendly and open, as they were in fiji, I found myself dropping my English reserve and becoming generally more relaxed. This changed dramatically as I encountered the rush and hurry of life in Hong Kong. It became all too obvious that the bombardment of stimuli caused me to tense up every muscle in my body, just trying to cope with it all.

It is obvious, when we think about it, that people of different cultures and backgrounds stand, walk and move in different ways. The people in Cairo, for example, have a word to describe the poorer farm workers who live outside the city-its literal translation means "the graceful ones".

So it might be useful sometime to really stand back from the society we live in, to try to ascertain which of our own and our pupils' habits are there simply because we were raised in a particular part of the world. This is not an easy process. It is often the case that our cultural habits are the hardest of all to eliminate during Alexander lessons, simply because they may appear to be so normal to us.


Richard Brennan an internationally renown author having written four books on the Alexander Technique which have been translated into eight languages. He travels throughout Europe giving TV and radio interviews, running workshops and giving lectures. He lives in Galway, Ireland where he runs a busy private practice as well as being the director of the only Irish Alexander teacher training college. Anyone wishing to train can contact him at:

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