Friday, April 15, 2011

Beggars as cultural psychologists

The north end of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's most famous street, is fraught with danger for the groups of young Georgians who like to stroll, arm in arm, past its glitzy shops on warm Tbilisi evenings. The danger is a group of beggars, all children, who harass passersby. Some locals tell me that the beggars are Roma, but I don't know where they come from; the point is that they are beggars, and fairly aggressive ones. It's common to see one of the young children clinging tightly to a pedestrian's leg, with the unfortunate Georgian's companions (the beggars rarely target lone individuals) futilely shouting at the child. Eventually someone usually digs into his pocket for a few tetri, a small price to pay to extricate his friend (often his girlfriend) from the child's clutches.

The interesting thing to me about all this is the beggars' selection of tactics, because I've seen it before. In India, when I was sitting in a rickshaw stopped at a traffic light, it was fairly common for beggars to approach me and to begin stroking my leg, arm, or whatever body part they could reach. It was an intensely awkward experience, and I'm sure many Westerners living in Delhi pay to avoid it. This is of course the whole point -- the beggars know that if they can make their targets uncomfortable enough, many people will pay just to get rid of them.

Which brings me back to the north end of Rustaveli. The beggars there have the same general strategy as the ones in Delhi, but their tactics are different. Instead of stroking your leg, they grab it and hold on, or they follow you down Rustaveli, plucking your clothing and generally getting in the way. There are plenty of possible explanations for this; maybe there is a cultural difference in the "acceptable" methods of begging between India and Georgia. Maybe the Rustaveli beggars are simply using different tactics because they don't have the luxury of approaching Westerners stuck in traffic in tiny vehicles with no doors.

The possibility I find more interesting, however, is that the beggars are adjusting their tactics to best annoy their targets. They certainly have the motivation to do so -- the more they can annoy their targets, the more money they make (as long as they aren't assaulted or arrested). If this is true, then the beggars are conducting a sort of social experiment in awkwardness, optimizing their tactics so that they are most aggravating to targets of a certain culture.

I'm not sure if this is true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were; certainly having my leg stroked in India was incredibly uncomfortable, whereas the Georgians seem to find it much more difficult to ignore the harassment of the Rustaveli beggars than I do. I'm also not sure what conclusions to draw, if it is true that physical contact is more effective on Americans, while harassing someone's friend is more effective on Georgians; maybe something about the relative value of friendships versus personal space and individuality. I don't really have anything more insightful than that to say, but I do like the idea of the free market leading to an optimal level of social awkwardness.


DAgger5 said...
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grim said...

I love this post. That is all.