23 August 2011 ~ 8 Comments

Relativity Theory: How Does Perspective Impact Stereotyping?

This post is a re-blog of a post done by a writer/blogger I admire a great deal by the name of Orchid 64. Readers of Loco in Yokohama might recall that she recently did a guest post here and totally rocked the house!

Here’s a link to the guest post

Below you’ll find a thoughtful and incisive post she wrote a couple of days ago on her blog, 1000 things about Japan, regarding stereotyping!


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.

Orchid 64

Wow, right? Thanks Orchid for “Keeping it Real” in the truest sense of the phrase!

Orchid 64 has two blogs…click on the banners below to check them out!

Comments are disabled on her blog (and she has very valid reasons for doing so) so if you have a comment about the above post, feel free to leave it in my comment area. She passes through here occasionally and, who knows, she may even respond if she isn’t too busy.



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8 Responses to “Relativity Theory: How Does Perspective Impact Stereotyping?”

  1. AmandaT (@WhoaImInJapan) 23 August 2011 at 7:47 pm Permalink

    Very well put, but I don’t think this theory applies to a recent experience I had.

    I just came back from Taipei, and both I and my room mate who went with me came to the conclusion that the people there were “rude” The sales people seemed to have attitude, like helping us was a pain in the ass or something. For example my room mate is of Chinese descent, but doesn’t speak Chinese well. When she asked the girl manning the ticket both at the movie theatre if she spoke English she received an abrupt “no”. This also happened when we tried to stop someone in the street to ask for directions to the nearest train station.

    However my students tell me the people in Taipei are friendly! Somehow I think they can’t possibly be receiving the same treatment. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that in a culture where the customer is God the behavior I got from sales people (no smiles, no eye contact, unwillingness to answer questions) would be considered un-friendly if that’s what was happening. I’m not sure how to account for the disparity, except the maybe Taiwan is not as impressed with the west and as enamored with English as Japan.

    • Orchid64 23 August 2011 at 8:31 pm Permalink

      There is indeed overtly rude behavior which is directed at people based on superficial observation. Sometimes it’s about interpretation and sometimes it’s so overt that no other interpretation is possible. My husband and I have been treated very poorly on occasion in Japan. The worst was a woman at a record shop who was extremely hostile toward us in a manner which indicated that she thought our perusing the records was a cover-up for theft. She carefully checked every record we actually bought with a face so filled with hate and malice that there was no misinterpreting what she felt. She spoke to us as if we were the scum of the earth and that our presence was not the least bit welcome. The odd thing was that we didn’t do anything that other record collectors didn’t do as it was common back in the day to take out the records and inspect their condition as well as the contents (if there were lyric sheets, posters, etc.), but we were the only ones who were treated like criminals for our handling of them.

      My guess is that she had encountered foreigners who actually did steal, or she saw other shoppers (Japanese or foreign) who handled things as we did and they stole, or she just had an enormous chip on her shoulder and she applied her prejudices to us. The same likely happened to you. Other tourists may have had an air of entitlement or expressed frustration that people in Taipei didn’t speak English for their convenience and their contempt for others based on past experiences got pasted onto you.

      Sometimes it’s not about relative experience or expectations. It’s really a case of prejudice clear and simple.

  2. Orchid64 23 August 2011 at 8:23 pm Permalink

    I pass through here every time you post. 😉 I’ve subscribed via RSS so I never miss a word! I just don’t really do much with comments.

    Thanks for the repost, and the supportive words. I always appreciate it!

  3. Dom 25 August 2011 at 9:03 am Permalink

    I think there’s a danger of lumping people and their opinions together at all; almost as much danger as in lumping races together as predictable stereotypes. Considering Tokyoites or Inakajins as one coherent clump of personality is a problem, and one which will leave you forever dissatisfied and outside of them. It’s when you come to see these groups of people from the INSIDE that you can understand the existent glaring differences from the mainstream, and it’s then you can see how you CAN fit into this ‘impenetrable society’.

    Japan is nowhere near as closed as people always say. Those people almost always arrived in Japan and slid straight into a big group of foreigners (co-workers, ex-pat communities) who enforced the idea that no foreigner could ever penetrate this wacky nation; somehow expecting acceptance to find THEM rather than the other way around.

    Another point is: do you fit into the mainstream of your own country? If yes, then you may have trouble with a foreign culture, if no, then how do you expect to fit into the mainstream of another?

    One thing which I only realised after almost three years in the countryside, is that there are people here just like me. Almost exactly like me, except they’re Japanese. People who don’t praise your chopstick skills or ask if you can eat sushi, simply because they aren’t that ignorant. The fact that they are single mothers and men with full-body tattoos says more about my personality than anything else, but the point is that you CAN fit in in Japan. You CAN. It has nothing to do with racism that you don’t immediately belong here – it’s the mainstream, and only that, where you don’t fit, and which is happy to tell you that over and over again.

    • Dom 25 August 2011 at 9:07 am Permalink

      Furthermore, how many people have you met in your home country? How many did you like, how many were idiots and how many were just ‘other people’?

      As ex-pats in Japan, we of course have to start from scratch. It’s going to take a long time to find people who will be genuine friends, and even longer to REALLY understand their personalities (thanks to language and our own cultural ignorance).

  4. Momotaro 25 August 2011 at 11:01 am Permalink

    Good post, from my experience, all of those things which initially seem ‘wrong’ to you and are quite distressing all end up becoming normal after living a similar life to that of the locals. I think it also helps to have a conversation partner speaking in the local language who will listen to your rants and then calmly convey their own perspective to you regarding things.

    What is hard here is that most are not expected to fit in and are kept away from that experience due to cultural, language and other barriers, which I feel is a shame.

    Stereotypes do suck and are incredibly frustrating. I find not being treated seriously is one of the more frustrating parts of this. The being at a disadvantage thing you are talking about on your blog also is also very frustrating. I may be being naive, but I believe one day hopefully I can get past that through study and experience and getting inside those people’s heads. I can also feel your pain talking about the record store, I hate the feeling in the air where everyone doesn’t want you there, just because of your appearance as this is something that you can’t and shouldn’t have to change.

    At the same time, I feel once you have gotten used to things somewhat, it is important to voice things you don’t understand or feel uncomfortable with as you often learn why some things are there as a result.

    As you said, it all comes down to self-perspective. I can recall seeing people freeze up and get distressed with non-native speakers of English from my time before here, but now the memories have much more of a human side to it.

    Anyway, keep blogging and keep up the hard work.

  5. Magenta 19 January 2012 at 11:20 pm Permalink

    I think that there is a truth but you have to look at it from many different angles to find it sometimes and it’s possible to be right and wrong at the same time. My experience was travelling through Australia, living in Indonesia and growing up with people frequently speaking another language around me, having different clothes, having friends who waere deaf, blind ect ect and that’s just how it was. Communication was something more precious than words and life was about connecting through similarities rather than differences. My ideas of right and wrong in life was simple – try to understand people, if you do something wrong then appologize and learn from the mistake, don’t bully, don’t be racist, don’t be sexist, don’t do things that will hurt other peoples feelings, be responsible, treat other people how you’d like to be treated blah blah blah. Then, I lived with a racist host family, was mobbed and sexually harassed and my view of the world became a lot more cynical, my morals all twisted and jumbled up, so confused and upset and angry and part brainwashed by the people who’d
    surrounded me – esentially I was becoming prejudice myself, a person I didn’t like

  6. Magenta 19 January 2012 at 11:31 pm Permalink

    The truth for me is simple. I want to learn to accept that my views are distorted and try to strip back the layers of judgement. I have to see the goodness in the world again through forgiveness. People aren’t stereotypes. They aren’t Japanese or Australian or Aboriginal or Black or Yellow or White or good or evil – people are simply just trying to do their best with what they’ve experienced, who they are and what they feel.

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