I have been here long enough now to be able to say without any hesitation that Georgians are some of the most extraordinary and genuinely interesting people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and among whom I continue to happily live and work as Tbilisi remains my home for over ten years.
Their warm and friendly character, the sweet-and-also-fiery Georgian personality, their strong yet welcoming disposition and demeanor, and their love of life and living alongside all of the rest of the markers of Georgianness, as I see them, are worn here like badges of honor as the people themselves also believe that they are special, different in a good way and even, dare I say, a bit (a lot) better than the rest.
The issue of Georgian mentality is often brought up and talked about among the locals and the foreigners living here. Discussions are lively, sometimes heated, always interesting and, also always, without a definitive conclusion as there are as many ideas and opinions about Georgian mentality as there are Georgians themselves.
So, then, is there such a thing as Georgian mentality? And if so, what exactly comprises Georgianness?
To get started on finding the answers or, better, trying to find the answers, I talked to Dr. Lado Gamsakhurdia, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Tbilisi State University, whose areas of research and expertise include socio-cultural processes and cultural changes as well as the connection between culture and personality. He writes and publishes regularly on these issues in the Georgian and international academic and scientific press.
“There is no doubt that there are some ideas, rituals and beliefs which underpin the union of various peoples into particular units. Common identity is a social construction which is oftentimes founded on common history, myths of common descent and, also, on the beliefs of a group’s special place in the world,” said Dr. Gamsakhurdia. “My research shows that Georgians have a clear-cut ethnic identity; however, their self-definition is in a dynamic process of reconstruction. So, Georgianness, while it exists, is in the process of active development. Research points to the fact that the sense of belonging to Georgianness is very strong among many people.”
Georgian mentality or the markers of Georgianness comprise a varied list of attributes which differ, often radically, depending on the source of information. I spoke with two members of the expat community and held a focus group discussion with ten young people of various backgrounds and asked everyone to give their definitions and examples. Generally, however, there is a core set, such as the high importance of family and friends, masculinity among males and pride and self-esteem (also mostly a male attribute). Other markers are seen in the manifestation of competitiveness among individuals, attitudes towards sex and being judgmental and disapproving of others and openly expressing these sentiments, feelings and opinions.
“Georgians are living in a multicultural and diverse environment now and many of them are proud of this variety and the fact that you can find different and specific cultural elements in almost any region of the country,” said Dr. Gamsakhurdia when I asked him about the defining aspects of Georgian mentality. “At the same time, however, there are some common ideas that serve as symbolic identifiers of Georgianness: the value of the family, being married and having a child, living in extended families and a conservative code of sexual behavior, for example.”
Indeed, the role and importance of the family unit is at the top of the list when anyone speaks about the issue of Georgian mentality. Respect and reverence for parents and grandparents, close bonds with siblings, equally close bonds with uncles, aunts and cousins, and living within the family home until marriage as well as often remaining in the same family home thereafter within an extended three-generation family as children are born and a new family is created are cited across the board as a very important part of being a Georgian.
In his recent article, entitled “Quest for Ethnic Identity in the Modern World: The Georgian Case,” Dr. Gamsakhurdia wrote: “According to the majority of respondents (35 out of 38), the most salient sign of Georgian identity is their strong attachment to family and close relatives. Respondents have intensive contact with their relatives. It is widespread in Georgia to live in the form of extended families. Traditional households are typical for Georgia. Close relatives play an enormous role in the lives of Georgians, they influence their decisions and share their sufferings and successes… Georgians maintain a firm bond with their family for their whole life and are sensitive about how other people talk and behave with respect to their close relatives. If a person neglects his own family and does not express adequate respect to them through his behavior or speech, his Georgian identity may be questioned.”
An interesting opposing opinion, however, surfaced repeatedly in the focus group discussion.
“Of course, our close family relationships and their importance is a part of our mentality but this can also have its negative effects. For example, I know many full-grown adults who are still living at home with their parents and have no idea how to survive on their own,” said Zhana, age 26. “At the same time, because of our mentality, parents here are often very selfish. At my age, I have to work hard to convince my mother to let me travel abroad or even go to nightclubs. Sometimes, I get very angry because why do I have to ask to do something with my own life? Also, I will never talk to my mother about any romantic feelings I might have because she controls me so much. You know, I used to love to go out to nightclubs with my friends but I stopped because I was so tired of listening to my mother’s lectures every single time when I got home. I could never enjoy myself because she was calling me every five minutes. Unfortunately, here in Georgia, in our families, your private life is not your own to live.”
The pressure that can come from the family decision-makers within the hierarchy of importance and control was also highlighted.
“I don’t know if I will have kids or not,” said Tornike, age 20, “or even if I want them, for that matter. But my father has already told me that my son will be named Kakha, or Kakhaber in full, after him. This has already been decided!”
Ana, age 19, had comments much in line with the others.
“My grandmother lives with us,” she said. “She tells me to eat. She tells me not to eat. She tells me to go to bed. She tells me to wake up. She asks me where I am going. She tells me to be home early. She drives me crazy. I have no privacy and I feel trapped in my family. I said once, to my father, that I wanted to move out on my own. He started to cry and didn’t talk to me for three days…”
Friends and friendships are another important part of Georgianness and enormous weight is placed upon the institute of these relations. Friends, in fact, can often surpass relatives of any degree of kinship in terms of personal relationships. Friends made in childhood are particularly important and typically last whole lifetimes while taking on highly specialized names in the Georgian language to indicate that they are more than a regular friend. The word dzmakatsi (literally, “brother-man”) denotes a male who is more like a brother than a friend and daqali (literally, “sister-woman”) denotes a female who is more like a sister than a friend. The different names describe a very different level of friendship and connection with its own particular obligations and fixed responsibilities.
“Interpersonal relations, such as between friends, are very important and much closer here than in the West,” said David, age 25, in speaking about the importance of friends and friendships. “In this case, our mentality is more Asian or Southern.”
In parallel, however, expectations are placed on people to maintain and actively engage with friends and participate in friendships even if, for whatever reason, they no longer desire to do so. Dr. Gamsakhurdia, in his article entitled “Making Identity, Proculturation in Between Georgianness and Westerness,” presents a case study of a young Georgian woman who felt enormous pressure to maintain friendships even though they were no longer pleasant and were even destructive. “Tamar admits that she does not have enough personal freedom and has no choice but to communicate with her peers more often than she would like to,” he reported. “She feels uncomfortable to be obliged to talk with friends too often even when they do not have much to share or discuss with each other. The breaking of such obligations might lead to a negative judgment and the deterioration of her own image.”
My friend Tina also commented on the role and importance of friends and friendships in Georgia.
“Yes, we have our close family relationships and our close friend relationships, never mind that our doors are always open for the neighbors to come and go,” she said. “I have a very demanding job and at the end of the day I am exhausted. But my friends call me every night and ask for help or ask for something or they just want to go out for a cup of coffee and talk. They always need my time and attention. Sometimes, I want to say no but I know that I can’t. Friendship is stronger than any responsibilities that I have to myself. If I refuse, what will they think? Then my mother will find out and what will she say? Then the neighbors will know and what will they think? Sometimes, it is not easy to be a friend in Georgia.”
*Illustrations Otar Imerlishvili https://www.facebook.com/otarmerlishvili/