Friday, August 19, 2011

Random Thoughts: Relativity Theory

Sometimes I have thoughts about living in another culture which I'd like to incorporate into blog posts here, but due to the format I have chosen, I can't really flesh them out effectively in any brief individual post. Rather than simply keep them to myself, or worse, forget about them entirely, I've decided to occasionally make a "random thoughts" post. This will be the 1000 Things equivalent to my "Variety Friday" posts on my other blog. This will in no way be a regular feature, but such posts may crop up from time to time, and reveal my naturally verbose nature. I hope they are of interest.

Recently, I was having a discussion with a student about stereotypes and whether or not they tended to reflect reality to some extent. Because she has been to France several times, I chose to ask her about the oft-cited stereotype of the rude and arrogant French person. Note that I am not endorsing this as anything other than a concept that exists in some minds. I've never been to France and am not sure I've ever even met a French person, so I'm in no position to evaluate the veracity of such a statement. She, however, was. My student said that in her experience, French folks didn't seem particularly rude, but also that they didn't seem especially helpful. She didn't really embrace the stereotype, but she didn't entirely reject it as ridiculous.

As we discussed this topic, one thing became clear to me which I have been aware of superficially for quite some time, and that is how all experiences are filtered through ones own culture based on a variety of factors. My student is a born and raised Tokyoite, and as such, she is accustomed to the cool, detached demeanor of many people here. People are mechanically polite in most service positions, but rarely authentically warm or overtly helpful. They rarely chat to strangers on trains and infrequently engage in chitchat at the check-out register. If a stranger attempts to strike up a conversation, most Tokyoites become uncomfortable to varying degrees depending on the circumstances. This is the norm in this particular area, but it is not the same in other parts of Japan. This isn't especially surprising because people who reside in big cities (all over the world) often respond to the overstimulation of city life by being reserved and detached. It's a way of coping with the stress on their nervous systems, not a choice to disconnect from other people. It's absolutely unconscious for most people.

When my student goes abroad, she is going to react to behavior from the perspective of someone with this sort of lifelong experience. French folks who are not especially helpful are not going to strike her as rude because their behavior isn't far from what she has experienced everyday of her life in Tokyo. For me, as someone who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town in which people would stop to help a stranger with a broken down car, or go out of their way to strike up a convivial conversation with customers at shops, the cool nature may seem like overt rudeness. To me, they would seem to be deliberately holding back their friendliness from me, because I would see that as the norm. What they are truly doing is something that no one, save the involved party, can ever be certain of.

The bottom line is that no one, no one, can view life from a perspective other than their own. You can't objectify human behavior perfectly because you have to gauge things like rudeness, politeness, friendliness, etc. from a baseline and everyone will set that baseline according to primarily personal cultural norms and to a lesser extent broader cultural ones. If you think that you can set a "proper" baseline that everyone should reasonably work from, then you're not only ethnocentric, but arrogant as you demonstrate the belief that your notions of such things are "correct" and others are not. People in your own culture may not even agree on such norms, let alone those outside of it.

One of the reasons why I labor so hard (and rather pointlessly, it seems, based on some of the e-mail I get) to say that this blog is subjective is that I have been aware of this for such a long time. One of the reasons I tell people there is no one "truth" about Japan is that I am aware of the way in which cultural relativity affects responses to life abroad. Certainly, there are objective measures which can be used to suggest certain things, but the conclusions to be reached are dubious in most cases. For instance, is saying, "welcome" a good indicator of friendliness? The frequency of issuing a greeting is something which can be objectively measured, but in cultures in which people are trained and absolutely required to say "welcome", such as in Japan, is it an indication of friendliness or merely rote repetition of a phrase they must utter based on the rules of their employer? In Japan, it's absolutely the latter. So, even when you can establish objective criteria, how such results are to be interpreted and what they say is hard to determine, particularly without a strong cultural context.

From the discussion I had with my student, I found a good example of how our background and expectations affect our perceptions of a new environment. Some may argue with me that we can distill all behaviors into some sort of "average" from which we measure deviations and reach quantifiable results about cultural characteristics. It would be possible to derive some sort of scale on which to measure things, but how meaningful would such a scale be? A bunch of sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists could create a consensus about such matters and pat themselves on the back, but the results wouldn't mean anything to the average traveler who would still be measuring the positive or negative sense of an experience from subjective criteria. Such a scale would be meaningless in any circle outside of academic ones. In the end, I think it's best just to accept that we are all going to see the world a little differently, and stop expecting to do otherwise, and what's more, stop telling others that they are "wrong" because they respond differently.