Havana: A Culture of Sociability

One of the main parts of Cuban culture that has struck me is people’s willingness to share with each other. Coming from the East Coast of the United States and living in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., I’m used to people coldly pushing past each other in the street. I never really knew the people in my neighborhood growing up, even though there were children my age around the block. I grew up in a culture wary of strangers and with communities that weren’t necessarily closely knit. So when I came to Cuba, I initially found it hard to believe that people’s friendliness was genuine. I thought people were being kind just because it was easy to spot the Americans, and that perhaps they thought we’d make interesting conversation. However, I quickly learned that many people here just care about being friendly to the people in their neighborhood.  My Cuban friends have called it just being “sociable” (in Spanish)—which doesn’t necessarily translate directly to "sociable," as there are multiple layers to this sociability.

Firstly, Cubans in the street are friendly to whoever passes their way. Some of the friends we’ve made in our neighborhood we’ve simply met on the Malecon—a wall right on the sea, where many people sit and spend time at all times of night with friends. Interactions can be simple greetings, like smiles and exclamations of “buenas noches” (good evening/night), or can extend to be much longer conversations and friendships. Even if an interaction doesn’t lead to a more meaningful friendship, the neighborhood feels much more welcoming than the communities I have experiences in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., simply because the neighbors themselves are so willing to exchange pleasantries.

The second layer of sociability that I’ve noticed is people’s willingness to share their things, no matter how much or little they have. A couple of friends I met on the Malecon are always willing to share their possessions. And though they never ask for anything in return, I’m happy to reciprocate and share my things when I can—it’s an integral part of our friendship. We’ve exchanged music on USBs and often purchase each other’s bus fares. On a couple of different occasions, one has invited me to his house along with a few other friends. There, his mother upheld the sociable culture by making sure that we had ample food and drink—she wouldn’t accept my request when I asked her not to burden herself with preparing food. It’s inherent to the social culture in the neighborhood to share things. 

The third layer of sociability is having obligations to each other and making the effort to give our time to others. More important than sharing objects and food is sharing time and experiences. My friends that I met on the Malecon will often show up to my house without warning just because they want to spend more time together. I internalized the importance of this layer of sociability one night when I told my friends from the Malecon that I couldn’t stay out for very long because I had an early class the next day. One pulled me to the side and gave me a lesson on the sociable culture of the neighborhood. He told me that it was important to make the extra effort to spend a little more time together because that’s how Cubans form close relationships and communities. In a hushed but stern voice, he said, [my translation] “I’m 30 years old, and I work cleaning a church. I’m poor, Dani. But I still share things with you and all of my friends. We’re brothers and that’s what we do, so please make the effort in return.” His words from that night still stick with me, and they changed my approach to making friends in Cuba.

That night, I pushed myself to be sociable and stayed a little bit longer with my friends. In that moment, I understood that our time together was more important than the possible fatigue I’d feel the next day in class. In the friendships I’ve made so far, I rarely prioritize schoolwork in the way that I so often do back at Georgetown. While I’m here studying abroad, most of my learning has come from meeting people outside of the classroom. After 20 years of the cold, work-first culture in my hometown and college, the Cuban culture of sociability has been a refreshing change of pace, and I think my neighborhoods back home could learn greatly from the way that my Cuban friends approach their relationships to their communities.

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