Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fad-Friendly Culture and Group Think

How do you know what restaurant is good? As I was walking through the food kiosks at Luquillo, a beach town in Puerto Rico. I realized that you look for the crowded one, because if the locals frequent it, then it most be at least decent, right? At least that's how the thinking goes. While food-poisoning looks imminent in that lonely restaurant with nobody in it. This is a type of group think. You crowd-source your restaurant decision because you don't have time to check each restaurant for cleanliness and audit their food, you go where others have gone to eat and trust in the wisdom of the crowds.

Now sometimes you go off exploring too, and go check out that restaurant you haven't tried or that new place that opened. But when you're in a hurry, in an unfamiliar place, need to eat quick the lonely food kiosk just feels sketchy even if it's totally fine and the crowded one is just good.

Why is this important? It isn't but it's a cool way of thinking about a trend that happens in Puerto Rico.

My friend discribes it as a follón (social tangle), I use the word fiebre (fever) to describe the intense fads that take over the culture of the island. Presently there is a fad for cycling in the island. Which is extremely strange since the island is very (VERY!) bike un-friendly. The other day I used the term "biking-distance" and the person I was talking to, a life-time resident of the island, laughed cause she'd never heard the term before. You seem them on the highways this thousand-dollar bikes, which colorful rims on the wheels and leather seats. Where do they get the money for this?, I wonder many times. But that's the nature of the fads in the island. When they take everybody wants that exact same bike of the ideal biker.

Fad translates as "moda pasajera" (transitory fashion) or "novedad" (novelty) but really neither describes the intense fever-like social movement that fads create on the island.

These same fads seems to take over restaurants and pubs as well. One that is hot right now is "Downtown" close to the banking district in San Juan, the capital. It's a large place, with a huge bar and burger-oriented menu. Twice I've gone there, the parking full to the brim and even the over flow parking completely full at $5 a car. The place – packed to the gills. No reservations allowed. Arriving at 7 pm, wait-time for a table was over 2hrs – not theoretical hours, actual hours. We left at 9:15 pm with no food, only a couple of drinks from a bar so crowded, that they have roaming waitresses, ready to take your order while you're just standing. Inside the crowd looks vaguely like an army; all uniformed. All the boys in jeans with dress shirts rolled up to the elbows or polo-shirts. All the girls in dresses. The girls look like they just came of work, but the boys look like they got out of their banking jobs, went home and put on some jeans and then returned to their work-place area. Almost all the exact same age-range. When we left, still hungry, the line to get in had over thirty people waiting. The line clearly visible from the street, anybody arriving could see it before paying $5 for parking.

This sameness. Everybody goes to "Downtown" (but only on Friday nights!), everybody suddenly has the same hobby (expensive bike-ridding), everybody wears such a similar things that it feels like an enforced dress-code; this is all is very de-stabilizing to the island's economy. "Downtown" is hot right now. In six months, maybe not. Do you think there is a market for a bike shop to meet the demand? Yes, but it will vanish in a few months. Businesses that cater to these trends in the island  appear and disappear like Halloween Stores do before Halloween.

To me this fever, this follón, seemed completely inscrutable. But now I think it's likely a kind of group-think. People don't know what is or don't have time to find out what they find is "cool" so they follow the crowd. Biking in an expensive bike, well now that's cool. Not because biking is cool. Not because the expensive bike is better than the cheap one. Nope. Just because that's what others are doing.

Whomever studies this phenomenon, an anthropologist or sociologist, and truly explains it, they've got their thesis made, probably a book too.

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