Egoismos / by Adrian Joyner

To an English person, brought up with some notion of decent reserve, a concern not to blow one’s own trumpet, Greece can seem like a nation of experts and heroes, the men, that is. Modest, unassuming Greek men are rare creatures.

There is a word in Greek, egoismos, which obviously has links with English words like egotism/egoism, but egoismos resonates differently. It covers conceit, selfishness and so on but would probably be best translated as something like self assertion. Far from being a source of shame, egoismos seems to be a part of male identity. A Greek man will almost always have an opinion in a given situation, even though he hasn’t a clue, and in any group of men, opinions are always expressed simultaneously. If you watch news programmes on Greek TV, what you often see is a split screen with, say, four politicians shouting at each other at the same time.

As I say, for an English person of my generation (almost 63) it can all seem a bit abrasive and not necessarily very productive, although Greek friends say that they can speak and listen simultaneously, and it’s probably true.

Our neighbour Niko, when he comes down to the house for coffee or to have his hair cut, is always charming and friendly, but when we listen to him in the kafineion among his village cronies, he sometimes snaps and snarls at them like a terrier. It is as if these displays of egoismos are required among fellow villagers in order to maintain his place, his ascendancy, but with foreigners it’s not necessary.

I have been reading a fine book recently, A Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, by Juliet Du Boulay. It was written about forty years ago by a young anthropologist who spent two years in a remote mountain village. The book is full of perceptive observations about the ways in which the community manages itself, the complex network of conventions and obligations which allow people to get along more or less amicably. Egoismos looms large in the book, and maybe, in less obvious ways, we can detect it in ourselves.