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cultural ghettos, identities & city personalities

The Greek Personality: an urban study of a people.

After writing my last post on the Turkish personality and the traits that those of Turkish heritage retain, I came across more information and literature surrounding the Greek personality. Out of sheer intrigue and fascination, I share my findings here, which, not-so-surprising-to-me, (but could be to you), is very similar to the Turkish disposition. I understand very well the comfort that Americans and others have regarding Greece, this empathy and respect largely does not extend to Turkish people. However, I hope, with this post, to explore the differences and the likeness that we all share. In this effort, I will be certain to acknowledge (in parentheses) the trait(s), behavior(s) and other displays of commonality that crop up in my study of the Greek and Turkish personalities, from my Turkish female perspective backed by ”social science”, academic studies, literature & personal experiences. As always, much can be added & occasionally I’ll made edits to add further intriguing bits of information.

On the HEXACO model, previously discussed, Greeks found comparable scoring with the Croats, the Turks and the Filipinos. It is also known in psychology and sociology circles that Greeks and Hebrews are the two groups that act in anti-thesis of each other, allowing for each to represent a different pool of person and personality trait. i.e. “The Jew sits beneath his fig tree to think, the Greek to sit.”

In this post, I will generously quote from the Greek edition of the Culture Shock! series published by Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company in Portland, Oregon; the book is written by, Scotsmen by birth, Greek by adoption, Clive L. Rawlins. I will also include the writings of Nicholas Gage (originally known as Nikos Gatzoyiannis). And significant acknowledgment will be given to Michael C. Ashton of Brock University and Kibeom Lee at the University of Calgary in Canada for the usage of the HEXACO model to express the Greek personality lexicon. My own personal experiences in Crete, Cyprus and mainland Greece, as well as my exposure to Greeks in America, will be included here.

”It’s best to let Greeks be Greek.” Or so says Rawlins. It is from this expression of ”their” oneness with ”their” nationhood that they find strength and invigoration. Greeks in America are no different. They have given of themsleves to help build this country: afterall, they were, with the Italians and Jews, the creators of Hollywood. This explains the long list of Jewish, Italian and Greek names in everything from films, producing companies and even among those Blacklisted during the Cold War. They made Tarpon Springs, Florida; and make up a strong community in Chicago, Tampa, Miami, New York, Seattle and other places.

Greeks (like Turks) do not mentally encompass the same time scale as those of the western world. For Greeks, prehistory, poetry, art and mythology are examples of their affection for culture beyond a timeline. It is not uncommon for a Greek (or Turk or even Sicilian) to speak of ancient events as if they had just occured. In this sense, one might say that Greeks and Turks are nostalgic and sensitive. Of which we are, but at the same time, ever forward moving. A constant change and confliction are not rare among the Greeks.

A strong oneness with Greece, the country, predominates their speaking and their mentality. As Rawlins wrote, “They have a natural ease with recognizing antique or ancient characters in their history.” Greeks exhibit greater affection, almost, for their past exploits, than do Turks, I have come to notice. Some may argue that Greeks are encouraged to be proud of their history, because so much of the world glorifies and celebrates it.

Others might say that Greeks are nostalgic and Turks long for western world inclusion. It is hard to give a definite response because I have no science to back this comment up. I do think that Turks are often feeling inferior and act out by expressing their ability to adapt to American or western ways; whereas Greeks are fiercely independent and recognize their own importance and contributions.

Indeed, as Rawlins wrote of Gatzoyiannis (now Gage), “It was difficult -impossible- to forget the patrida, the homeland; as those who stay away cannot.” But this inability to erase their heritage, does not only mean those who were born in Greece, in fact, in means those who are U.S born children of the Greeks who come here, and the same goes for those Greeks in Germany, Norway, Lebanon or Cuba, even. And if the Greek saying proves correct, “Gnothi Seauton” or “Know thyself,” then to know ones self would mean the embracement of ethnicity, culture, traditions, personality traits and of course, religion.

Nicholas Gage (Gatzoyiannis) wrote a book in honor of his mother and his feelings of being uprooted from Greece, at the age of 9, to the U.S. during the Greek War of Independence, during which his mother perished.  In this time of personal struggle, Gage, according to Rawlins, can only express himself through the language of the poets Euripedes and Homer. Gage feels uprooted and constantly makes historical reference that no non-Greek (or in the least, those unfamiliar with Greek culture) can comprehend. Rawlins notes that for one to live “intelligently” in Greece would need to understand this trait. It is true that these classics and traditional ways of thought, that are inherent to the Greek, were not taught to him after the age of 9, while in the United States. Children everywhere learn of their creation, their roots, their history, but for a Greek to come to the U.S, much like any other group of people, the history taught is not entirely apart of the personal history of the Greek or Greek-American. Gages’ roots were “disrupted”; despite this his Greek thinking remained and he was desperate to tell his story in “Greek mode.” It was in his blood. This marked trait is common with so many in the U.S. It is not that these people, be they Greek, Turkish or Indian, or Mexican, are anti-American, it is more that for centuries other cultures have been demonized to the point of extinction, while the new breed of settler, relocater, immigrant, emmigrant or visitor, or citizen, is adamant on appropriate respect given.

For the Greek, the experience of being Greek, is not only in Greece; as Rawlins writes the ‘spirit of the place’ is native to him/her. It is in their blood. A long history, both actual and mythological, are apart of their personal truth. They name their children Greek names, and use these names among themselves, but will often adopt an Americanized or Anglacized name like Nicholas instead of Nikos, Margaret instead of Margarita or Chris instead of Kristos. “Thus,” as Rawlins adds, “Greekness is much more than mere physicality. It is a state of mind, of soul, above all language; and historically – at least membership of – the Greek Orthodox Church.” The only definition of a Greek is that it is one who thinks he is Greek – of course, they would need, as historian C.M. Woodhouse says, “solid grounds to call themself so. Like language, conciousness of history, almost inevitably religion, but not necessarily place of birth.”

To be considered a Greek or Greek citizen, by law, one must fulfill one of these criteria: birth anywhere in the world by a Greek mum or dad, legitmisation before age 30, adoption before age 30, naturalization by Ministry of the Interior, joining the armed forces (but you must be considered ethnically Greek), and through special procedures arranged by the courts, something only open to ethnic Greeks in the diaspora or of refugee status (i.e. like those Greeks in Turkey or the United States). [Keep in mind that Turks and Greeks while fiercelly supportive of their national name are truly a fabric woven of a million different threads - anything from Spanish, Albanian, Armenian, Arab, Persian and the like can be found, in healthy dollop, in their blood.]

It is also important when thinking about the Greek that a Greek does not only use words to speak, but indeed a manifestation of personality arises. When the Greek speaks his whole personality is revealed. At times, abstract, poetic speech is unwelcomed by the non-Greek. This creates a deep divide and difference between the average Greek and the average ‘American.’ Greeks exist on a certain mental plain that just might appear aloof, but this is quite the contrary.

The Greek personality includes warm disposition, gaiety, jeux d’esprit, serious humor, argumentative inclinations, contradictions and vigorous mannerisms – widened eyes, moving lips, raised and lowered brows, head and torso, hand and arm, foot and leg: “All are employed and meaningful.” The Greeks have been called as “quarrelsome as sparrows” – their love of a good argument is something I find similar and very endearing. I am the same way.

Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century, was a theologian, who said of Athenians: “The whole city is full of it [arguing], the squares, the marketplaces, the crossroads, the alley ways; old clothesmen, money-changers, food-sellers; they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophises…;if you enquire about the price of a loaf, he theologises; if you ask, ‘is my bath ready?’ he disputes doctrine with you…” Some might say arguing and disputing and countering is a national art and practise, maybe more so than sport.

Greeks tend to be very uncomfortable around the supposed ”frigidity” or ”rigidity” of the quintessential northern/western Europeans and some Americans. Body language is the language of the Greek. Italians, Spainards and others of the Mediterranean background will find great familiarity with this.

Other personality traits Greeks maintain: “they refuse mediocrity of expression,” clarity is also a fundamental need for the Greek. They have a very vivid ability to “distinguish, classify and see the differentia of things,” it is innate to the Greek spirit. They loathe ignorance of their culture by the hands and mouths of others, and can be very put off by those who visit Greece, or spend time among Greeks in other countries, and sense any bit of scorn, disapproval or the like regarding their culture.

Among the characters that inhabit mainland Greece and it’s islands, are the “poor-boy-cum-billionaire,” a contradiction but a representation of how proverbially laid-back they are, even in matters of business.

The Greek has a “ferocious” energy. ”They” are night owls – interesting as the Owl is the symbol of Athens – owls also signify curiousity and information. The Greek will bargain until the sun goes down or comes up, but they are not really big ‘tippers’ when out on the town (this is also very common in Turkey – I also admit (forgive me) to being a bit ‘confused’ when it comes to the ‘tip’ process in the U.S.) and they also can be quite competitive, despite their siesta-like demeanor.

Greeks, like Turks, have a high sense of ‘saving face’, or philotimia, which literally means ‘love of honour.’ In the Greek society and diaspora,” to lose face is to be savaged internally, to be – not just to feel- insulted. This sensitivity can be traumatic for all parties concerned; a great danger for the unwary newcomer.” But they can be very self-critical and engage in self-mockery at ease. And making fun of their politicians or societal failures is commonplace among the natives. The author Niko Ghia said, “They never do anything else.”

Other hallmarks of personality among them: worldliness, a questioning and inquisitive nature and a distrustfullness as bad-ass as a Sicilian. Amongst their own kind they refer to themselves as Romaios which for them reminds of “their deviousness, obstinance and selfish behaviors” and when on the world stage, they call themselves Hellene, which symbolizes their “noble, courageous and creative” strengths. The yin and yang.

Contradictions are also the lifeblood of the Greek (and the Turk) – these contradictions, “ambiguity and paradox are as natural to the Greek as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to the English and candy floss to the American.”

The Greek is inquisitive – they want to know everything about you, how much you make, where you live, how you live, what you drive, what you eat, what you believe, who you share your bed with and what your favorite wine is. They, as a whole tend to be, like Turks, very outgoing, extroverted and even communal in lifestyle. They are worldly wise, with profound street smarts and yet can convey an innocence and childlike playfullness very much like their sisters and brothers in Turkey, just next door.

Parea, a circle of friends that continues throughout the whole life of the Greek, is resumed spontaneously and with vigor. This is largely a “foreign” idea to the person who lives in the U.S or England, for example. Social cohesion and cronyism are commonplace. The place of the church, has become, in more recent times, among younger and more educated peoples, in particular, as a gathering point, not entirely relegated to religious teachings or extreme following of the Bible or sacred texts, but also as a place of community and history and culture. Despite this meeting point as a lively place of connection and chatter with fellow Greeks, it is still a Christian house of worship and Christianity is a very integral part of the Greek persons upbringing and ancestry. Greece is one of the only European nations with a ‘state religion’ and a strong ‘ethnoreligious’ background. Holy days are met with similar focus on community, drinking, dancing, food and family, and friends that one has known since childhood. This is the stereotypical Mediterranean experience. While the idea of co-opting a religious holiday for merriment minus reverent recitation of sacred dogma is also seen in Turkey (i.e. not fasting but engaging in the sugar holiday celebration that follows), the concept of congregating in a religious building or similar establishment and the usage of religious symbols amongst throngs of friends, drinking and dancing, laughing and chattering is quite contrary to Greek people’s Turkish contemporaries of young age, or of progressive lifestyle or higher education. In Turkey, it is often seen that the higher in education, worldliness and “modernity” opt for a life almost entirely free of any religious community, not even in high holy days.

In the arena of carnal knowledge, Greeks are quite comfortable with sexuality and open to the debates surrounding ‘it’. But still one may encounter Greeks that have what Northern Europeans might deem as strict or reserved or even Catholic or Orthodox ideas about nudity in public, regardless of their ”modernity” or progressive lifestyles. Public female toplessness or full-nudity on display as seen in places like San Francisco and high numbers of people engaging in casual sex with strangers or one-night stands (i.e. as is documented in Australia or Holland) is not necessarily innate to the Greek individual, but not completely foreign, either. Though, it is important to remember that toplessness while sunning on the beach or swimming at the sea is not abnormal in Greece  or it’s many European neighboring countries and it is not seen in a sexualized light as it might in the United States.

Of course, no personality or culture study can 100% testify to all persons of one nation or ethnicity. However, there are pervasive attitudes or societal judgements that linger from the days of yore or that remain somewhat of a staple within a culture or diaspora. This is not specific to Greece or those of Greek heritage (and it’s important to remember these are sociological studies of information gathered on the streets of Greece) – indeed such experiences or the classic conundrum of Madonna vs. Whore (and sexualization of a culture via media) is witnessed and lived in Spain and Italy, among other nations, even Latinos in the United States and those of Latin America proper. I am reminded of a particular statement made by a Puerto Rican young woman who was my classmate some years ago, ”You are supposed to be sexy, but not actually have sex.”

While prostitution is legal, as are brothels and pornography, it is kept “under wraps” and not as blatant or common and not apart of everyday living of the average Greek; flaunting these things are considered rather controversial but not illegal by any means. It may be a more controversial topic in more religious areas, naturally.

To be a prostitute in Greece, one must be at least 18 years and of Greek origin. This came to some debate during the 2006 Olympics in which Greece played host, many prostitutes were being replaced by Russian or other Eastern European descent individuals (through sex trafficking which plagues Greece and Turkey) and the Greek prostitutes protested this before the games hoping to regain their monopoly on the trade before the tourists arrived.

The ‘harpoons’ also called ‘kamaki’ are Greek men who “stalk” foreign women for sexual purposes, hoping to bed one, because they heard that western women are “loose” or willing to give it up. Foreign women have forfeited much respect based on hear-say and stereotypes, unfortunately. Greek mothers are distrustful of foreign girls who want to marry their sons, but if the marriage takes place, she will expect the foreign girl to incorporate or fully adapt to the Greek way of life and raising children.

Foreign women in Greece (and Turkey) often complain about the phenomenon of staring. “Eyeing women up” suggestively exists on a broad scale and eye contact is considered a come-on.” This can lead to some embarrasing situations if not handled appropriately. Greece is a male dominated society – meaning that women are not always allowed into certain coffeehouses or events.

Greeks are well-dressed, well-coiffeured, and like well-polished shoes, colorful dress and for the American or western/northern European, the women maybe put on “a generous application of makeup.” Through his/her dress, the Greek asserts, “I am different, therefore, I am.” Greeks enjoy an expression of individuality in their style – and some men even have the “pinkie finger nail growth (an eastern idea) demonstrating intellectual preoccupation, and a disdain for manual labour.”

Greek boys are doted upon, like the Spanish and Turks. Greeks are instinctual “rule-benders, they tend to be assertive, direct and daring. Courageousness, flight from danger, wit, tenacity, thrusting self-interest, wanderlust, love of home and country, sense of right, and calm espousal of untruth and deceit: opposites.” The argument a Greek engages in will likely be very personalized” and amour-propre.

If you ignore a Greek person, whether they are offering a suggestion or advice or a comment or directions, they’ll feel very hurt but will move on. Don’t be, however, surprised, if you’re next encounter with them, requires you ask assistance of them, and they snub you, in turn. As the Africans say, “A traveler to distant lands should not make enemies.”

Greeks are opposites in every sense of the word: they can lean towards being exquisitely polite or flagrantly rude. They may act tactful; even if he/she employs this it may not be their true feelings. Nicholas Gage writes that, a “smiling Greek can be a very angry Greek; even worse is the impenetrable stare.”

However, a certain warmth, openness and affection persists in the Greek nature. Lots of kisses, hugs, arm-linking, hand-holding, mutual tears and laughter can make for the traditional noisy interaction with a friend or relative. Physically expressed concern, sad separations at the airport and outright anger may displayed at will, just as potently as the affection they find so easily and readily accessible.

Self-importance, disbelief and the ability to act un-fazed are common actions. Loyalty, especially by Greek women for their men, is paramount. They can be zealously modest, jealous, exhibitionist and daring, they contrast at will. Europeans, in general, have long referred to them as “the spoilt child of Europe.”

They make phenomenal hosts, even those of little financial means will provide you with all they can, sometimes overdoing it with lavish displays in your honour. They’ll go a week without food if it means they can feed you and honour you as their guest. This is also very common in Turkey. And for the wanderlust and lonely traveller, these moments can be cherished and deeply moving.

Something a bit different than those of western or northern heritage: the physical proximity of friends and family. A mother will adoringly kiss her teenage son, and the son, in turn, may caress her cheek or stroke her hair, or hug her often. This is the case for soldiers, airmen, children, fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, professionals, intellectuals and governmental officials. It makes no difference.

Perhaps something even more important, is FOOD! Eating and dining are so essential to Greek self esteem that is incomprehensible to the uninitiated. The average Greek family uses 35% of their income for food, drink and epicurean delights. (Rawlins) They will discuss with great gusto the foods characteristics, the ingredients, the source of the meat, the fish, the vegetables, the fruit, their personal partiality to certain herbs (fewer spices exist in Greece and Turkey, than in comparison to say India or Iran – where saffron and various pungent spices are king) and even the taste of the water is discussed. Greeks use olive oil in abundance and prefer seasonal, fresh foods, sometimes made on a grill like peppers. Turks and Greeks rarely eat fast food or prepackaged meals. They enjoy the cooking. Even young Turks and Greeks will continue this tradition.

In the Greek appetite there is always room for tomatoes, olives, roses, lemons, hard boiled eggs, ambrosia, feta, figs, cheeses, locally produced goods, fresh and simple ingredients. To turn down food because you think it is too “exotic” is considered ignorant and rude to the Greek. Many still don’t understand veganism or vegetarianism – but such an excuse is more plausible than simply turning away a food offering because it intimidates you. Mid – day meals and breakfast/brunches are usually “farmers” style meaning bread, olives, cheeses, honey, warm bread, sardines, sausage, souvlaki and mezes – or samplings of various items on platters.

Overall, Greeks are not particularly concerned with opposition or inconsistencies, they live within that microcosm and appreciate the tension. Arriving on time is not of grave importance and living on nature and friends is exalted and magnified.

The HEXACO study, a six dimensional structure of personality, used in this case by Kibeom Lee of the University of Calgary and Michael C. Ashton from Brock University, delivered some interesting findings regarding their Greek subjects. Their July 1, 2009 study for the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology discovered that Greeks scored high on extraversion (like Turks), neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

In my own memories of Greekness and my current exposure to Greeks in the diaspora, I find great comraderie and similarity in ways of living. I remember after a fateful border crossing into Nicosia, (in Cyprus), with a certain Nikos Stavrous, we commiserated and shared; he told me, in great candor, “before I met Turks, I hated them, because they [my people] told me to. Then I met them, and I liked them, and I saw myself in them, and they in me.”

About asliomur

Aslı Omur is a prolific writer. She is a freelance journalist for hire and a free agent. She writes about: film, people, books and authors, art and artists, music and musicians, cultures, travels, sexuality, cuisines, small businesses and their owners, finance, science & technology, genocide, war time, personalities, stereotypes, urban living, minimalism, simple lifestyles and life off the grid, among many other topics. She is also a published poet and photographer. Her life is one big curation & curiosità. Her article subjects, clients, friends & intimates call her a thorough reporter, coolspotter, trendstarter, creative thinker, sleuth & always a student.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “The Greek Personality: an urban study of a people.

  1. congrats!

    Posted by pepon | April 20, 2013, 8:28 am
  2. This is such a wonderful article. I am Asian and my boyfriend is Greek, after reading this, I understand and appreciate my him better :) thank you for sharing.

    Posted by Delcy | April 28, 2013, 6:08 am
  3. Great post! One correction: you won’t see Greeks holding hands, that’s common in Turkey but not at all in Greece.
    On the other hand, of course we have many common things. We are the same people actually! When the very small number of ancient Turks arrived in Minor Asia, the already hellenised or ancient Greek tribes who already had become “Romans” (i.e. Greeks) split: those converted to Islam are modern Turks, those who remained Orthodox Christians are modern day Greeks… So racially we are the same people, aren’t we?

    Posted by Rum | June 3, 2013, 9:00 am
  4. This article is spot on, Greeks and Turks are indeed two sides of the same coin!

    I used to also have a dislike for ‘Turks’ growing up in Crete, and then when I actually met Turkish people at university and later while travelling to Turkey on business, I also could feel this bond and common root very strongly. While Greeks usually identify themselves with Italians and certain Balkan nations (notably Serbia), it is with the Turks that we are by and large the closest. When dealing with my Turkish clients and partners, it is surreal how easily I can predict their actions and reactions. It is almost too easy!

    So what I say to those who hate/dislike the other side, while having never actually met or interacted with it, is that hating them = hating yourself. It is that simple.

    Posted by Giritli | October 13, 2013, 1:49 am
    • Giritli, I really really appreciate this comment. I am so honored to extend hands and minds in non-judgement and friendship. May we seek what binds and vanquish hate, one experience at a time. [ps* I like your username :) ]

      Posted by asliomur | October 20, 2013, 8:00 pm
  5. Reading this article was definitely enlightening to myself, where for my entire life I’ve lived in Canada, and being half greek, not knowing my greek father, I still to this day, wonder what characteristics that i have that are greek, and what is north american. I’m glad to have read this now knowing that a majority of characteristics within myself are greek. thank you :)

    Posted by Crystal W. | October 20, 2013, 3:29 pm
    • Crystal, Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I am so glad you found familiar traits and some camaraderie within your Greekness. May you continue to find all you seek.

      Posted by asliomur | October 20, 2013, 7:58 pm
  6. This article is of the utmost quality. I believe understanding is a necessary foundation for peace .

    Posted by Bill Rabara | April 15, 2014, 8:33 pm
    • I appreciate your comment, Bill. Indeed, understanding, and relating to one another is the true beginning of a peaceful exchange. Thank you, again, for taking the time to comment on my piece. I put my heart and soul into my writings.

      Posted by asliomur | April 16, 2014, 9:56 pm

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