Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | September 15, 2008

Common Sense

For most of my life, family and friends have told me that although I am capable and maybe even occasionally smart, I have a complete and total lack of common sense. Rachael graciously comes to my aid after I’ve unsuccessfully tried to turn on an unplugged appliance or struggled with putting together IKEA furniture with the simplest of pictorial directions. Although my lack of common sense may be painfully apparent at times, I think I’ve also learned something about common sense in the broader context of knowing what’s right, wrong, strange or normal and being able to respond appropriately.

A teacher I worked with once told me that common sense isn’t necessarily that common. She argued that common sense was really just “cultural sense.” Basically, she said, those most like you will seem like they have more common sense than others who are quite different from you culturally.

Since living here in Japan, in a culture so different in all its subtle ways from my own, I am beginning to see what she was referring to. Back in the States, I shared many of my cultural values with fellow Coloradoans or Minnesotans or Christians or Suburbanites who were like me. I knew how to drive courteously, knew when to take an active role in or back off from a conversation, or knew what questions to ask when shopping for some new product or service.

Tokyo has flipped all of those understandings entirely upside-down. As an outsider, I really do not share much “common sense” with most of the Japanese people that I encounter. For instance, when we found an apartment we were interested in, we assumed we’d get the contract and sign it before being fully committed to moving in. Instead, the school had already paid the full down payment before we even heard about a contract. This was obvious to everyone but us. On the second day of school, I asked my students to copy two silly phrases down to start practicing the routine of using our writing journals, “Mr. White is the coolest teacher ever;” and “I am awesome.” Several of my little seven-year-old boys actually refused to write down the second statement because “that would be bragging.” My students in the States always got a kick out of writing silly statements like that, but these students simply “knew” that you shouldn’t speak about yourself that way. Rachael and I went to one of my students’ violin recitals this weekend, and of course brought out my camera to take photos, and I assumed every parent in the room would be doing the same. I was told by the dad that photos were not appropriate, so I put my camera away.

In the States, I wonder how often we forget just how cultural many of our actions and decisions really are. When we interact with people whose race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or socioeconomic status differ from our own, we will most likely differ somewhat in the cultural values, standards, and subtle understandings of what we should or shouldn’t do or say in any particular situation. We look at people strangely or even punish people when they step outside of boundaries of “common sense.” But, as I’ve seen firsthand, when your home culture doesn’t match that of broader society, it’s an easy and frequent experience to step outside those boundaries without any intention of doing so.

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Responses

  1. eloquent |ˈeləkwənt|
    adjective
    fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing
    DERIVATIVES
    eloquently adverb
    ORIGIN late Middle English : via Old French from Latin eloquent- ‘speaking out,’ from the verb eloqui (see eloquence ).

    Thesaurus
    eloquent
    adjective
    1 an eloquent speaker fluent, articulate, expressive, silver-tongued; persuasive, strong, forceful, powerful, potent, well-expressed, effective, lucid, vivid, graphic; smooth-tongued, glib. antonym inarticulate.

  2. eloquent |ˈeləkwənt|
    adjective
    fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing
    DERIVATIVES
    eloquently adverb
    ORIGIN late Middle English : via Old French from Latin eloquent- ‘speaking out,’ from the verb eloqui (see eloquence ).

    Thesaurus
    eloquent
    adjective
    1 an eloquent speaker fluent, articulate, expressive, silver-tongued; persuasive, strong, forceful, powerful, potent, well-expressed, effective, lucid, vivid, graphic; smooth-tongued, glib. antonym inarticulate.

  3. What my sister said!

  4. What my sister said!


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