How Cultural Inhibitions Stop Armenians from Fully Self-Expressing


In this candid interview, I share some of the motivations behind The Kalavan Retreat Center and what I have learned about cultural inhibitions in Armenia from the five years I've lived here.

In the five years I've been living in Armenia, I've learned a lot of unexpected truths about the general Armenian cultural mentality: what it's like to try to collaborate with them, communicate with them, the expectations they set, how difficult it is for them to do anything differently than what they have been told to do for generations, and even if they are smart and open-minded and creative enough to see like how that would work, why that would be a good idea, it still is probably going to be very difficult for them to actually do it because they'll think, "Well, what will everyone think of me if I do something different?"

Everyone is afraid of being socially isolated constantly, of losing their social support system, of being judged, of being ostracized because they interpret that the same as dying. I will die if my parents and friends and everyone don't fully completely accept me, which means I have to be exactly what they expect me to be.

Look how much easier it was to get five people from other countries to come here. Some Armenians have come here in five years, but it's been really difficult to just drive two hours from Yerevan because it's like, "Well, where am I going to tell people I'm going all weekend? They'll want to know details. What if they think I've been alone in a man's house? What will my job think? What will my parents think? What will my friends think?" Just fucking do it. You're 35. You're not 17. Even if you were, fucking break a rule once in your life. Make a choice. Take a risk. It's so the opposite of America and the West, where people just do what they want to do. And if they don't know how they're gonna do something, they figure out how to do it.

I didn't think I'd have a house full of Iranians, but that's who came. I opened the doors, and that's who showed up. I'll take good, open-minded people wherever I can find them.

My grandmother was Armenian. I got citizenship here. I liked it here at first, and I was invited to come live in Kalavan by the people here because they said they wanted my help economically developing the village, educating the children, and building up lots of cultural and economic things. This was before I knew that Armenians couldn't tell the difference between saying something and doing it. Those are two processes. One logically follows the other. They only do the first one. They say the thing. They think about the thing. Maybe they even imagine doing the thing. But then they don't do the thing. But they act like they've done it because they talked about it. They expect praise and results because they talked about a thing.

And then, when someone like me comes along and says, "Okay, let's do the thing now."


"The thing that you said you want to do that you told me to come here and do. Let's do that now."

"What are you talking about? You're scaring me, Gregory. You're making me uncomfortable. Please leave me alone."

It's the kind of thing that takes a while to notice because it's not like like how I picture Iran. I haven't been to Iran, but I picture it as a place where it's quite obvious that if you step out of line and say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, people are going to get very angry and maybe stone you to death or arrest you. And there are other countries like that, too.

Armenia is not like that. You don't see that obvious visible effect of it because it's more like, "Well, everyone will hate me if I don't say and do the right things. They're not going to stone me to death, but they'll hate me, and that's the same thing." It's an invisible type of social repression, and you only notice it after you've been here long enough to have interacted with some people regularly. You start to see their invisible psychological limits, like lines they won't let themselves cross. Anything not culturally condoned and socially approved of. Basically, the way your parents expect you to live, which turns into how your peers expect you to live, too.

After five years, the biggest conclusion I've reached is that you really can't do much to change individual people's minds. I've invested years of my life into trying to help exceptional people realize you don't have to live this way. You don't have to think and act this way. You don't have to limit yourselves to what other people here expect from you because you're smart, you're creative, you can be outgoing, and you can envision a better way to do things. You just need to give yourself permission to do it. In the end, fear will still be there. Even if there's curiosity, even if there's ambition and intelligence. That cultural fear. "What will other people think? Oh my god, I'm going to die." It's still somewhere in the back of their mind.

The strategy now, the plan now, the approach, is that the only way to make any kind of meaningful cultural change is to congregate people who already think differently. People who are already free from that cultural mentality. Bring them all together and then subtly influence everyone around them by showing them, "Hey, there's a different way to do things. Come check it out if you want. Look, you thought there was only one way to live. The way everyone else around you lives. Look, here are some people living another way. They seem happier and more successful. Maybe there's something to the way they're living. Why not check it out?" It's that simple.

The Armenians are not very eager to have a foreigner like me integrate with their culture. Believe me, I've tried. I can't even get them to speak the Armenian language with me. I've hired teachers who would not speak Armenian with me when their job was explicitly to teach me Armenian. They got nervous when I said, "Why the fuck are you still speaking English? I hired you to teach me Armenian. You still speak English. Why are you doing that? Right now, open your mouth and speak Armenian." It's like a wall around part of their mind. It's like I have to stay safe in my Armenian cultural associations, and foreigners aren't allowed in here. This is just my little safe space.

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