One of the reasons people seem to underestimate the power of sameness is that it's so ingrained. And much like any habit we form, usually unknown to the holder. Worse, it's difficult to pinpoint how we all get that way.
A trick I like to use to explain how I see it is to get someone to refer back to their home town. When you're a kid you just know the streets, the secrets, the best places to go, where the other kids are, that kind of thing.
But, at the same time there are still all kinds of things about the place you don't know. Everyone has had that experience of actually going inside a place they've never been before, and going, 'well, well, so that's what the old Johnson/Smith/Clarke place is like!' And that can happen in a place you've been all your life.
Imagine then, going to a place you've never been before.
When I arrived in Melbourne I had nothing but my suitcase and my old hitchhikers dufflebag. I knew no-one, no-one at all. I knew I had to make it to Monash Uni by a certain date, and that was it.
Oh, and I'd bought a great map of the city. It gave me nothing but an abstract picture of where I was in relation to a bunch of other stuff I had no idea about. Terrific.
I relied on public transport and the goodwill of strangers (goodwill that they wouldn't send me in exactly the wrong direction that is), and ran a reccy out to Monash on Sunday to escape a hostel room full of hungover and farting backpackers.
What a mission. I took a number of wrong turns, got lost at least once, had to stop frequently to nurse my own hangover, but eventually, there it was, a giant building looking like something out of the Thunderbirds.
Once I settled into the on-campus dorms, after finding my way back there a day later to ask questions, I started to fill out the spaces in my surroundings.
It's been the same way every time I move to a new city. I learn my flat or house, checking out the gardens or lack of, finding a good spot to sit in front of the telly, digging out junk to brighten the place up and make it feel like 'home'.
Next I find my way to the local shops/ATM/cinema/bottle shop/work. Usually that involves making the most direct way there, and checking out the surrounds on the way. Eventually, I start to notice little things I'd missed on the initial trip. A Bay leaf tree that I can pinch leaves from. A good pizza joint or noodle bar. A new way to get to where I'm going that saves time or legwork.
What happens, eventually, is that what was a simple, straight line from A to B becomes a kind of multi-layered network of links between places, things and people, all kind of jumbled up, but comprehensible all at the same time. And from that maze of information comes a deepening understanding of the city in which I live, both as a place, and as a place of people. The city itself comes alive, in a way.
Cultures, and societies work in pretty much exactly the same way. When you grow up in one you think you know pretty much everything there is to know about it, even though it can still surprise you, and when you leave it for awhile, it changes slightly.
But, trying to understand another culture or society is like trying to come to grips with being in an entirely new place. You'll get lost occasionally. You'll make stupid mistakes and annoy the locals. You'll find the most amazing and wonderful places and things, things that will delight, and some that may well horrify.
New places are uncomfortable, lonely, frustrating, amazing, enthralling, and grow around you like warm old jumpers, while still leaving you lost in their folds and trying to detach yourself from little snags that capture you.
Sameness is the product of people having been through experiences and places they share, and which 'outsiders' could never share. These things may well overlap with different people in different circumstances, but there are people in Melbourne, Texas and Auckland who will never meet one another, and are only connected to each other via, well, me.
And should those people meet, all the problems of garnering familiarity will be theirs, as it was mine. Of course, the advantage they'll have is both knowing me, if you could ever call that advantage, though it is a subject for another day.