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.