//2 April 2017

The spirit of convivir

In Spanish, the verb convivir broadly means “to live together”. A more nuanced translation could be “to live together in harmony” or even “to coexist”. As most people, I’ve had my fair share of convivir. Growing up in a big household, then moving out to a student dorm and also sharing a classroom, a lab, and an office, I cherish the rare moments of peace and quiet like people cherish pristine silicone wafers in the fabs.

Without going too much into cultural stereotypes, I’d like to mention the conversation that’s at the heart of what I’m writing now. I talked to one of my dorm neighbours, a good lad from Spain, who complained that Germans lacked the spirit of convivir the Spanish had. As an example, he pointed out how, when a new cashier opens at a supermarket, here in Germany everyone swarms towards it hastily, while in Spain the line would move together, preserving the order of customers.

This is just a snippet of the voluminous code of conduct behind the spirit of convivir which varies across cultures and countries. But at its core, there is nothing more than the idea of harmony, of compromise.

I doubt anybody enjoys compromise—however, in society it matters most how we deal with things we don’t enjoy. To classify our convivir potential, here is a simple graphic:

Convivir window

Those who are both low-key and caring (blue) are angles—and we all know angels don’t exist. Then, on the anti-diagonal, we have a pair of types in which one quality compensates for the other.

For example, in green we have those who don’t really care much about others, but are usually quiet and prefer low-key pastimes. Thus, they have much fewer opportunities to cause disturbance and their being selfish and inconsiderate often goes unnoticed. If there is no cause for complaint, they continue doing what they do and they don’t have to think about others.

In contrast, the ones in the yellow part of the graph can’t help making a mess or being noisy—commotions are part of their temperament/lifestyle. Still, they ask for permission and apologise, or find other ways to make up for their actions.

Finally, we’ve got the devils who raise hell and won’t bat an eye even when confronted about it. Extreme, yes, but you probably know someone like that—in fact, it is safe to say all of us had such an episode—in childhood, or last weekend maybe? These cases are the most difficult to deal with and the most disruptive. While the other three types might find the balance and live in the spirit of convivir, just one bully is enough to spoil the milk.

Is this graphic useful? Is it even true? Like most matrix-like classifications, it serves to analyse behaviour and articulate some insights. For me, it helps with reminding me that just keeping things tidy, private, and quiet does not make me caring and considerate. I have to engage with people and actually be a part of society to contribute to it. Similarly, others may realise it is not enough to give notice before causing a racket or apologise after it. Sometimes they need to change their ways to accommodate others.

In the end this is what the spirit of convivir is all about—the extra effort everyone has to put in to achieve harmony, and whether one is willing to go that extra kilometer. And no, you won’t get a medal for it if you do, but you get a chance at making life better, and coexistence more bearable, for everyone. If this happens to be something you might want to do, that is.