In the latest episode of Acchi Kocchi, we saw Hime driven up the wall by having to choose between calling her gift to her friends either honmei (romantic) or giri (obligation) chocolate. While this is no doubt just a case of friends teasing each other, why does it often happen that we end up torn between two extremes and have trouble explaining our middle-way?
It turns out the issue is linked to human cognition. I have mentioned before that humans feel the need to categorize anything and everything. One of the characteristics of this categorization is magnet behavior. Just like magnets, categorization attracts and repels ideas.
Attraction is the ability to ignore insignificant differences between objects and unite them under a single label. If you think about it, there are no two identical apples in this world, and this should make it difficult to define what an apple actually is, not to mention doing your shopping according to the shopping list your mother left on the fridge. But thankfully, any object just has to be similar enough to the prototype apple in our heads for it to count as an apple, small differences be damned. You can see this principle at work in little children, who will often call many different animals dogs because they all have four legs and so look similar enough.
If objects that were similar to begin with are treated as one thanks to attraction, what about those that are different from all known prototypes, or stuck between two of them? There’s always the option of acknowledging a new prototype, of course, and that is what children do (over time) to solve the multiple dog problem mentioned above. But we are social creatures, and unless someone gives us a helping hand in broadening our categories, we do not often make up our own. After all, it would not help us communicate much if we made up something nobody else would recognize.
This is where plan B, repulsion kicks in. It forcefully categorizes borderline cases as one of the more extreme variants on an ad hoc basis, even if they don’t really fit. It seems that to the human mind, mistakes are the lesser evil when compared to complete incomprehension and a resulting brain freeze. ‘Do you love me or hate me’ might be one line we’re used to hearing in soap opera fights between couples, but it demonstrates nicely how comfortable the mind is with narrow and radical thinking.
This basically explains Hime’s predicament – Japanese society only accepts two kinds of chocolate gifts, those romantic and those that are little more than common courtesy. No matter how complex the actual feelings behind a gift are, everyone’s interpretation will gravitate towards one of the pre-established molds. Any attempt at an explanation will be quickly shot down as wriggling out of giving a clear answer.
While the existence of a limited number of such molds makes communication within a single society much easier (or even possible in the first place,) it can be quite a headache when it comes to cross-cultural exchange. Everyone thinks their way of categorizing the world around is the obvious and natural way, but somehow different cultures ended up with different results. The Japanese have historically used one word, aoi, for both the colors blue and green, which basically means the two were considered different shades of the same color. On the other hand, they do have separate words for raw rice, fried rice, crushed rice, export rice, fresh rice, old rice, early-harvest rice, polished rice… and many more. You can often guess what the most important aspects of a given culture are through the density of some of its lexical fields. But the differences make translation errors and various misunderstandings between foreigners a common occurrence.
Personally, I always wonder why English doesn’t seem to have a common term for the numbers from 11 to 19, a staple in my own language…
On a side note, Yumeka has started a ‘Fundamentals of Japanese‘ series on her blog for everyone starting their study of the language or just looking for some trivia to make the anime experience even more enjoyable. One more reason to visit her blog.