Abstractions

My apologies in advance to any brave readers of this post.  It is long, winding and very lost.

I am reading about abstractions,*  about how we make assumptions and generalisations about things on flimsy evidence, and it has got me thinking, a dangerous activity at the best of times.  Anyway, in the next few paragraphs I have tried to link what I have been reading to my own experience in Japan.

“Japanese people are so nice,” is a common abstraction made by visitors who have been smiled at and spoken to kindly a few times.  The statement assumes all other Japanese act the same way; it also assumes Japanese are equally nice to each other and to other nationalities.  Other visitors, the Chinese or Koreans for example, may have a different impression of Japanese niceness.

Oh dear……, perhaps I am treading on dangerous ground here.  I don`t want to suggest the Japanese are nasty.  I should barricade my position.  Here goes: Many of the Japanese people I meet are nice, some are incredibly nice, some are so nice I want to take them home to keep.

But others are not nice at all.

It is impossible to say “Japanese people are nice.”  With so many Japanese spread out over such a huge area, the statement assumes and guesses so much that it loses any credibility.  It is the same as Japanese visitors who condemn all English food on the basis of a dodgy battered cod outside Kings Cross station.  Or English visitors who condemn Japanese food because they tried a slab of raw tuna in a Chinese-run conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in Wolverhampton 7 years ago and didn`t really fancy it.

A short pause.  I think it is needed.  I hope you are taking fistfuls of salt with every thing I am saying here.  You probably already have your fist in your mouth.  I certainly do.  I sense contradictions in almost every sentence.

Of course, niceness itself is also an abstraction.  What may constitute nice behaviour on the streets of London – not shoving, giving a pound to the homeless – may be harder to maintain on the chaotic streets of Delhi.  Standards of customer service in Tokyo are so different that behaviour which might seem nice for some visitors – shop assistants wrapping a gift or bowing and thanking customers – for many Japanese is just doing their job.  Meet the same assistant out of work and their manner towards you may be completely different.

For a visitor, the perceived inconsistencies can be confusing.  I can`t tell you how many times I have been convinced a shop assistant is madly in love with me, absolutely certain of it, even kidding myself the first restraining order was just playing hard to get.  I can`t tell you the number and I won`t.

But anyway, getting back to the point of this post which is that……the point IS that erm…….Sorry about that.  My head is spinning.

Thinking about language too much makes you question the meaning behind every word.  But then you get stuck spending too long digging behind the word.  Real communication with other humanoids becomes impossible.  You end up quitting your job, reading obscure books from the second-hand book shop, and sitting in your bedroom writing sentences to yourself.

*  Language in Thought and Action by S.I.Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa.

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8 Responses to Abstractions

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear oh dear. There simply isn’t enough salt. Where to start? Perhaps with a fib. No, not patronising at all! So nice to be led through this trixy area by an omniscient and kindly expert. Or with a question: how else can we start to form judgements other than with either necessarily limited observation (abstraction) or without observation (ignorance or prejudice). Many people travel so that they can form their own opinions. Starting with a small sample is surely better than hearsay. Not everyone has the luxury of experiencing a country as you have done or the time for a national survey.

    You’ve limited yourself to the end comment, not the reason for it. I suspect that most of the generalisations you have heard are on the whole positive rather than negative. Perhaps because of their audience? They assume you love the country and its people so maybe they compliment as a bonding strategy. They’re in a strange country. They need an ally.

    Maybe they are optimists. Maybe they’re pre-disposed to like a country they’ve chosen to holiday in. Maybe they’re at the start of a cultural love affair of their own. People on holiday like to discover loveliness. It does not make them foolish.

    Conversation is not the same as research. Despite knowing the qualifications that go with all judgements, people tend not to itemise them. It interrupts the ebb and flow of chit-chat. They do not know they are running the risk of a Devonian Inquisition. I am sure they do know that one polite swallow does not make a summer of etiquette.

    Though you of course, have judged them by a single, land mine, well intentioned comment.

    I know I’m going to regret this. Commenting on your blog is always an extreme blood sport. Air kissing and running like hell…

    P.S. You started it.

    • tomointokyo says:

      Thank you for the comment. I think you are right. And wrong. I did not mean to accuse anybody of foolishness. I was not judging anybody, certainly not on the basis of one comment. I was only judging the statement.
      I think you are right that people like to make their own opinions, however limited. I certainly do all the time. But this doesn`t make the opinion any less one-eyed or misleading.
      Once formed an opinion is reluctant to change, especially one based on personal experience. I remember a Japanese girl who hated the entire French race solely on the basis of one conversation with one French person 7 years ago.
      Anyway, thank you your comment. I hope I haven`t alienated you with my response. Now I am off for my first day at work in an office full of Japanese. I hope they are nice.

  2. The Japanese are no nicer or nastier than any other race of people, but they are more polite, which is an entirely different thing.

    • tomointokyo says:

      Thank you neat comment Muzu Hashi, I agree politeness is very different from niceness.
      Perhaps one is learnt and the other is natural. Or perhaps I am talking bullshit again.
      Anyway, Up the Shrews.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hello Muzu Hashi, thank goodness you came! Of the three of us you are the only one who is making any sense. Tomointokyo – can’t we have a robust exchange of ideas without talk of alienation? The box does invite commments, not platitudes. And I did blow airkisses. Yet somehow I’ve become Miss Jean Brodie.
    I hope you had an enjoyable, relaxed, successful first day, bathed in love and warmth.
    Somewhat disconsolate and bewildered,
    One eyed pitbull.

    • tomointokyo says:

      Dear One-eyed pitbull,

      I am sorry I did not mean to alienate anybody, certainly not you. I am grateful for the feedback.

      The Hayakawa book is not about the Japanese at all, but it talks alot about the dangers of abstraction and generalisation which I think is valid for everyone.

      His warnings about abstractions may seem obvious, but that doesn`t mean we don`t fall for it every time. I mean every single one of us. I think all words are loaded with meaning that nobody on earth is clever enough to ignore. I think so anyway, but don`t hold me on it – I am writing out loud here.
      As soon as we find out somebody is black or Muslim or Japanese or female we instinctively and immediately construct an image of their character. This can blind us to who they really are.
      Perhaps people reject their race, religion or gender
      primarily because they dislike the stereotypes.
      Does this reply make any sense at all?
      I send you a heart-shaped christmas pudding, air-bows and best wishes

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dear tomointokyo,
    Thank you for the pudding, air bows and good wishes. Even more importantly, thank you for your blog. Peace and goodwill to all.

    Jaunty One-eyed Pitbull.

    • tomointokyo says:

      Thank you Jaunty for the message of goodwill and all the comments. They help give the blog meaning and at least a semblance of coherence. Please keep them coming.

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