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Cultural difference makes the rules. While my ethnographical observation is focused on the city Milan, I find it only enriching for this report to add a comparison to Bangalore, a metropolitan city in India (where I come from) with different culturally influenced behaviours because I truly believe culture plays a major role in the formation of hidden rules of a city.
1.1 Introduction Human behaviour is quite complex. The way we react, adapt, influence comes from behavioural traits inherited over generations in the respective environment. Each environment allows certain behaviours while limiting certain others. Each society might have its own unique approach for the exact same task. As a student from a completely different cultural background. It’s something I’ve observed time and again during the 16 months I’ve spent in various cities in Europe. Moving to Europe by itself brought in a number of instances of cultural differences. That’s why working in a culture other than my own has been helpful. It is easier to spot behaviours I am not familiar with. A most simple example would be how people in Milan greet each other, even strangers when they pass by on the street but in a bus or metro train, it is very rare to see strangers indulging in a conversation. Strangely in Bangalore we don’t greet strangers on the street but we happily chat up the person sitting beside us on a bus. This is just one of the many differences in the two cultures. I would be using another such example to study and explain in detail why this could be happening and identifying the possible hidden rules in Milan. While my ethnographical observation is focused on the city Milan, I find it only enriching for this report to add a comparison to Bangalore, a metropolitan city in India (where I come
THE HIDDEN RULES OF THE CITY
from) with different culturally influenced behaviours because I truly believe culture plays a major role in the formation of hidden rules of a city. 1.2 Background Street stalls are one of the oldest manifestations of commerce and they are all different in terms of customers, atmosphere and supply. Street vendors have different features and characteristics depending on where they are located. In Milan there are two kinds. The first kind is the open air stalls that open once or twice a week at a designated area and the second are the ones that are open on all days at transit stops. For my ethnographical field study I chose to observe the temporary stalls and vendors seen very often outside of transit stops in Milan. Anyone who has lived in or visited Milan for even a day would know which ones I’m referring to. These stalls or kiosks are usually located in and around metro stations, tram or bus stops in Milan. I remember being surprised to find stalls like these during my first week in Milan. Surprised because they were very similar to the many temporary stalls that can be seen all over Bangalore. To me these stalls were so similar back then, I didn’t really think much of it other than that. My ethnographical knowledge gained over this semester helped me study the behaviour of these sellers and make some interesting
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observations which only a person who has lived in both cultures would notice or pay attention to. Now I can say they are similar but very different. 1.3 Comparison of hidden rules Edward hall in the book hidden dimension talks about how, in order to understand man it is necessary to understand that the information received by his receptor systems (eyes, ears and nose) are modified by culture. He describes the sense of space and how it varies for different situations and contexts. We will observe the stalls, sellers and potential customers in this report making connections to his theory. To find or to be found- It is commonly believed that a good location is the key element to attracting customers. It makes distribution easier. Location can influence a retailer’s ability to market his products, and to deal with the competition it faces from other retailers. After all, if a potential customer can’t find you easily then they will go elsewhere. Inspired by a course presentation where we saw how well a store was doing because it was located right outside a tram stop at Porta Garibaldi and along the path that potential users would take from the tram stop to the train station. And how it stopped doing well when the tram stop was relocated. I observed and tried to identify the logic behind where the sellers decided to place their stalls. Choosing the demographic wisely is usually the factor that determines whether retailers are likely to record footfall or not. The chances of finding a similar store outside a luxury mall is near zero because their target consumer is the middle class who probably use public transportation.
Location- For this study I believed it would be appropriate to choose a major transit hub because there is scope for finding more than one stall in a bigger hub and it would help build a stronger case. In the summer, I happened to travel around North Italy quite a bit via trains and most of them departed from the Milano Lambrate station. Because of this, I was already aware of the number of stalls present and the footfall expected even during the pandemic. It is also one of the
#1 Typical stall commonly seen outside of transit stops (Piola in this image) #2 Map of milan highlighting Lambrate station (site of observation)
MARIETTE L V ROBIN
main stations serving the city and commune of Milan, Italy and is the third largest station after Milano Centrale and Milano porta Garibaldi. So I chose this station as my field of observation for the exercise. During the weeks of observation, there were four such stalls, one bigger than the others. Each stall was located on the path that potential customers would take to move from one transit stop to another. The biggest store was interestingly located at the intersection of pathways to two different modes of public transport. Stores like these probably don’t have any loyal customers as such so the only way they can attract customers is by choosing a location with maximum footfall or where people spend time waiting, ideally beside a bus or tram stop (see image 4). The purpose is to be visible to them while they go about their daily activities.
Who are they? There are two kinds of actors here. The sellers and the potential customers. I interviewed one of the sellers out of curiosity. I was curious to know where they were from and if they actually manage to make a sale. They are immigrants who didn’t manage to find a regular job so they turned to trade to help them survive. Turns out they often do make sales sufficient to have their meals. Mostly because they spend the entire day at the station. And even though the stalls are illegal, the police turn a blind eye on them because they have nothing to offer as an alternative solution. The potential customers are the users of public transportation at the transit hub. They range from office goers, youth, families and even elderly. #4
What are they selling? The products these stalls sell also has a huge role to play in choosing transit stops as the location. While we see here in image 4 that it’s mostly winter wear and bags because the picture was taken in the winter. In the summer, they have summer clothes, sun glasses etc. They also sell products like umbrellas on a rainy day, winter hats and gloves on cold days etc. These are things people may consider buying at a compromised quality probably because they forget to carry one and need it only for that one time. And the best place to find them is during the journey. Similarly,
CULTURAL DIFFERENCE MAKES THE RULES
#3- Map showing the paths taken by potential customers and the location of the stores. We see all the paths crossing at least one of the stalls #4- The image shows the one of the stall strategically located at the bus stop with people waiting around.
for magazines and newspapers the ideal position would be a transit stop because people spend a lot of time travelling in urban contexts and consuming media is one of the most common ways to spend that time. How do they promote their products? We have seen until now, the primary method of drawing attention of the customer is by being visible in the path taken by the target while entering or exiting the transit stop. Another method the sellers use is by striking up a conversation with the people waiting. Usually it is limited to a simple “Ciao” or “Buongiorno” which ends up being ignored most of the time. It just made me question the situation. Why were they ignoring them? The longer I observed the more conclusions I could draw from that. The sellers in Milan seem to recognize personal space as a concept and don’t push their limits or try to force a response. The potential customer on the other hand was either busy because they are on their way to work. Or they simply believe that anyone who strikes a conversation outside of this mutual personal space is irrelevant. However if the same greeting was extended to a non-local, they almost always got a response. I myself have always responded even though I wasn’t interested in making the purchase. The locals have understood what works and what doesn’t to convey their interest or disinterest to the vendors and have accordingly adapted. In image 5 we see the seller maintaining an assumed social distance (far phase) while trying to strike a conversation. The distance allows him to scan his audience for potential customers (non locals). The distance allows the persons passing by to comfortably pass without feeling awkward or obligated to respond. In image 6 The seller has caught the attention of two passers by. We see the distance changing to a more personal distance (far phase). At this distance a conversation is possible so now the person is obligated to respond (either agree or disagree with the deal offered)
#5- Actors at social distance #6- Actors at personal distance MARIETTE L V ROBIN
When do they sell? All stalls were open and functioning by 8.30 AM and up until 7 PM. I imagine this includes the peak hours of footfall expected at the station. The time frame seemed to cover the typical 9-5 timing of a worker along with a buffer of one or two hours. (see image 8) Comparison- In Milan, the sellers found a logical spot and waited for their target customers to find them. Interestingly, in Bangalore, another urban setting, the sellers moved around the city to find their target consumers instead of waiting in one position. There is almost no stall that isn’t mobile (see image 8). Even though many of the stalls in milan are on wheels as well, they are always stationary. In bangalore, the stalls are always on the move. A fixed time period isn’t common in Bangalore because many women are still homemakers and that reduces their market by half. During peak traffic hours, sellers can be seen at the signals walking between the traffic trying to find customers. At mid-day their target customers were probably homemakers, and so they could be seen pushing their carts around residential areas to be visible to them. Waiting in one place all day and hoping to find customers is not something sellers in Indian cities would do. However sellers in Milan put in extra thought into finding a place where they are easily spotted by the target audience because moving around may not be legal. Sellers in Bangalore often follow their potential customer while trying to strike a deal with them. The most interesting part is they get a response almost every time. Either a stern “no” or “that’s too expensive” if they were interested in making the purchase. Why? The concept of personal space in Bangalore is completely different. It is assumed that if the sellers didn’t strike a conversation with every person walking past the stall, there’s a high chance of missing a potential sale. The potential customer on the other hand has to make it clear if they are interested in making the purchase or not or the seller will keep trying to make a sale. There are also instances where sellers would walk in between traffic during a red light and knock on car windows to make a sale. (see image 9) It is
#7- The stalls remain open for 10-11 hours. Pictures taken at 7 PM and 8.30 AM #8- Carts in Bangalore as illustrated by a Bangalorean artist Ranganath Krishnamani #9- Personal distance (closephase) between actors CULTURAL DIFFERENCE MAKES THE RULES
normal and even works many times. In Milan this would be considered a public nuisance. In the image we see the distance between the two actors is very different from what we saw in the stalls in Milan. Sellers here ensure they get a response from the opposite party by barely maintaining a personal distance (close phase) as described by T Hall. Out of curiosity I happened to look online for public opinions about these stalls. I came accross a popular travel website where people left reviews of a city (see image 10). There were many reviews of Milan where these vendors were mentioned. It was interesting to notice a strong pattern in people who tolerated them and people who did not. The reviews left by people from European countries and especially Italy were almost always negative. They felt their personal space was encroached. They felt unsafe. Whereas the reviews left by non-Europeans were positive and empathetic towards them. This pattern further shows how the change in opinions could be bcause of the change in culture. 1.4 Conclusion Through the study of the stalls at Lambrate station, we were able to identify culture based hidden rules in Milan. Sellers make their sale by making sure they are in the zone that triggers the visual receptors of the potential consumer. They maintain different kinds of distances for different kinds of interactions. The personal space is encroached only when the opposite party shows interest. The intersection nodes of paths that connect the various modes of public transport were mostly where the stalls were located. The products sold at the station were clothing, umbrellas and magazines. These play a very important role in deciding to have the stall at the station. The sellers respected personal space and the most they would do to promote themselves would be extending a casual greeting. Because anything more than that could be seen as a form of harassment. These are some very significant rules for me because they are behaviours I am unfamiliar with. The hidden rules were formed of the behaviour of the sellers, the products that were sold at stations, the timings of the stalls, and the behaviour of the potential customers. The object of study is the same in both contexts but the cultural difference makes the rules.
#10- Screenshot of reviews of the city of Milan that talk about street vendors.
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CULTURAL DIFFERENCE MAKES THE RULES
The image on the left Highlights the path taken by users from the bus stop to the train station and the image on the right highlighs the path taken by users from the train station to the metro station. The stall is located at the point of intersection of these two paths.
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CULTURAL DIFFERENCE MAKES THE RULES
The path taken to exit the train station leads straight to another stall with a very eager seller waiting to greet his potential customer. But we see we don’t see him blocking their way. The potential customer is free to walk away through the open door.
Such similar stalls seen at other metro stations like Lodi and Piola in Milan.
THE HIDDEN RULES OF THE CITY