Challenge #3: Articulating My Life Plan

Second Challenge - (Not) being busy: complete!

As I mentioned at the beginning of my second challenge, not being busy is already something that I do. I fully expected to succeed. That said, writing the article itself did have the effect of strengthening my resolve to abide by that principle. Spending the last two weeks reflecting on the importance of "picking my battles," I feel a renewed sense of determination to keep trudging down my current path. 

On to the next!

Third Challenge

For someone who prides themselves on being relatively articulate, I often find myself stumbling over words to explain my life plan. It's not that a plan hasn't been formulated. In fact, it's re-formulated on a daily basis. In order to explain my tongue-tied feeling, I want to share a story about Japan, an excerpt from a book, and an idea from culture and linguistics.

Cultural contextuality

In 1976, anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote about a new cultural spectrum. In short, he delineated the breadth of human's cultural dimensions into two broad categories: higher-context and lower-context cultures. All cultures, he said, fall somewhere on that high-low spectrum.

The basic idea is that "in a higher-context culture...many things are left unsaid, relying on the context of the moment and the culture as a whole. In a lower-context culture, it becomes very important for the communicator to be very explicit with the words in order to be fully understood." Japan, with its highly homogeneous island population, reliance on Japanese language, and overall immersion in all-things Japanese, would be considered "higher-context." Everyone shares the same assumptions, so you don't need to spell it out. America, on the other hand, with its diverse population coming from vastly different cultures, is "lower-context". We all have different assumptions, so we have to spell out what we want more clearly.

In line with this classification, the speaker/listener dynamic is altered too. In Japan, it's the listener's job to make sense of what is being said. In America, it's the speaker's job to communicate clearly. 


3 japanese geishasOne of the oddest things you'll find when first starting to study Japanese language is the omission of subjects. "I," "we," "he," "her," and others are often left out of the sentence. The context provides the clues to understanding who or what the subject is. Compared to English, the word "you" comes up so infrequently in Japanese that teachers often forbid its use until the second year of study.

The mechanism behind subject omission is quite simple. If I have been talking about myself, then the sentences are obviously about me until I bring up a new subject. Therefore, I do not need to repeat "I" ad nauseum throughout. Similarly, Japanese grammar can make up for the lack of the "you." For example: if I want to say "I will read you this book" in Japanese, I could simply say, "本を読んであげよう." This roughly translates to "[I will] give [you a] read [of this] book." If I'm looking at you, holding this book, and using the grammar "to give" + the verb "read," then it's obvious that the person who will read the book is me, and the person who I'm going to read it to is you. 

If you're still shocked and thinking, "but still, how can they possibly figure out what's going on every day?!" then you know the feeling of every student's first semester studying Japanese. But, it's not as bad as it seems. I'll share a story to prove my point. In university, my Japanese teacher joked about people's misunderstanding of Japanese ambiguity. Retorting to the criticism, he said something along the lines of, "yeah, right, like everyone in Japan is just walking around completely confused about what is going on, like the engineers at Toyota--one of the world's most efficient, successful, and technologically-advanced auto companies--walk around saying, "I just have no idea who's supposed to be doing what!"" 

isolated island in FinlandFinland

Likewise, I read a book (the name of which has escaped me) where the author told a story that took place in Finland. Yet another country with a homogenous population and thick cultural and linguistic heritage, Finland has been argued to be both higher- and lower-context. Higher, because of the habits of the language. Lower, because of some of the oddness that is often associated with the Finns. Noting this oddness, the author tells us about a man whose car had broken down on the side of the road during a winter storm. A passerby stopped, got out, helped him fix the car, and left...all without either of them saying a word.

If this was a normal occurrence, it would lend credence to idea of Finland as a higher-context culture. In Finland, the assumption might be, "Someone's stranded? Help him and go." The person stuck on the side might have the same idea, thinking "I'm stranded? Someone will stop and help." Done. I know that's what will to be done and so do you. It's expected and understood.

In America it might be more complicated. The passerby might think, "Someone's stranded? What do they look like? Boy or girl? Seem safe? Are there other cars around? Should I just call the police? Will someone else drive by? Does it look like he's got it under control?" At the same time, the person on the side of the road might think, "Will someone stop? Should I call for help? Do I look like someone who people would stop to help?" And on and on. 

In both the Japanese and Finnish situations, we can see that what is left unsaid can often come down to culture. When everyone shares uniform assumptions about people and the world, you can do away with some of the linguistic fluff. 

Explaining my life plan

E.T. extraterrestrial

So, why did I bring up these two stories to talk about my struggle to define my life plan to others? Simply put, I think one of the biggest obstacles for me to overcome is to understand that the way I see the world--and my life in it--can often times differ dramatically from those around me. I take living abroad, 4 months of annual vacation, hours per week of voluntary extracurricular studying, speaking multiple foreign language, and entrepreneurship (to name a few) as obvious givens. "OF COURSE that is what I do!" is what I'm usually thinking when people appear baffled by my life.

It rarely occurs to me that the person I'm talking to might find my lifestyle wholly alien. Like Japanese and Finnish people (and everyone else), I make sweeping assumptions about what my listeners will understand. In my case, however, that's often wrong. I feel like a Japanese person using English to talk to an American as he would use Japanese to speak with another Japanese person; the logic is there, it's just that I don't realize I have to explain my assumptions first. This is only exacerbated by the fact that I don't have to describe my plan to anyone at all. I'm a self-funded sole proprietor and thus am accountable to no one; it's not a big hindrance if no one understands my plan at this time. Likewise, I often don't describe my plan because I'm somewhat of a homebody. Not only do I not consider the proper way to explain, but there are few situations where I would even have to. 

Tackling the problem

My challenge for the next two weeks will therefore be to articulate my grand strategy for (the current iteration of) my life plan. More than figuring out what my plan is (which I know), I'm going to try to focus on explaining why I want and need my plan to be this way now. Despite the topic being my entire life, I'm going to whittle down my explanation to: 1) a longer 5-sentence version and 2) a shorter 2-sentence soundbite version.

Given my propensity for writing book-length text messages to answer the question, "do you have a charger I could borrow?" the condensed writing might turn out to be more difficult than articulating the life plan itself!

Check out Challenge #4 to see my answer!



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