Judgments About the Silliest Things

Sometimes when I listen to people from one country describe the people from another, I can’t believe what they are bothering to have this conversation.  The behavior or difference they are discussing is so unremarkable, so ridiculous to dwell on, that I can’t believe that it has been noticed at all.  The silly little behavior that they are describing is, of course, actually an iceberg.  Below it lies a much bigger structure.

One thing we know in social psychology is that people like to assign causality to (i.e., blame) the character of the person who they see engage in a behavior, rather than the situation in which that person is behaving.  This fact is called the “fundamental attribution error.”  As an example, suppose you are standing in a bus that is jerking along on a bumpy road.  The person next to you suddenly lurches forward and stomps on your foot.  What do you think?  You think “clumsy jerk.”  You don’t think, unfortunately, “stupid road” or “this bus has bad shocks,” except under special circumstances.  I used an example in which the event that you are trying to explain also causes you some discomfort because discomfort enhances this tendency to explain events in terms of the other person’s personality (“jerk”) rather than the situation (“bumpy bus ride”).

The preference to see people’s behavior as reflecting something deep about them, and not something caused by a situation or even a transient thing about them (such as the fact that they are currently sick, tired, or distracted) is so strong that almost any observed behavior will be remembered in terms of the personality trait it implies for the perceiver.  This “spontaneous trait inference” is illustrated by the tendency to see someone arrive late to a meeting and later discuss them as being “unreliable” rather than having been “late to the meeting.” Or not discussing them at all.

I am not sure if this has already been documented in the psychology literature, but it must be true that people make “spontaneous cultural trait inferences” from observed behavior as well, behavior that captures attention for some reason.  And as I said, I am fascinated by what captures attention.  Some really mundane stuff. This probably happens in all countries, but I’ll describe an incident that occurred about eight years ago in my city, Clermont-Ferrand.  I was walking on a central place with my husband and we ran into the schoolteacher of one of our children.  My husband introduced me and after I had said hello and nice to meet you, we all had to pause to discuss my accent and where I was from.  The story that the teacher wanted to tell was this: “Oh,” he said, “my sister-in-law is American too.  It was so funny, but last fall we were all sitting in a café in Paris.  Everyone ordered coffee, as it was five o’clock.  But she ordered a glass of wine.”  Then he proceeded to laugh hilariously and we were all supposed to too.  But I didn’t laugh because I thought, “So what, so she wanted to drink wine.”

Although my good friend Marie-France has told me that women are never supposed to order wine (in France, at least in the south) when sitting alone in a café or else people will think they are a prostitute, this fact is not relevant here because the American woman in question was not alone.  So the wine had to be the tip of an iceberg.  What was the rest of the structure?  That she was poorly raised (again?)?  That she was insensitive?  “Individualistic?”  Who knows?  But I find this tremendously interesting and exhausting over a long series of similar experiences everywhere in the world.

One of my husband and my favorite iceberg tips is the iceberg of “what time you eat dinner.”  I was sitting at the dinner table with an Indonesian-American friend, Bo, and my family, including my two younger children who were 3 and 5 at the time.  It was 7 p.m.  Bo received a cellphone call from a friend in Paris.  He told that friend that we were at the dinner table. The friend laughed audibly and said, “déjà!!!!!!??????”  Already? Oh God, you simply can’t be eating dinner at such an early hour. Tell me you are not! What does dinnertime actually mean?

Dinnertime has to be associated in part with day length, I thought, and so I asked my friend Rita (who is French) about the typical dinnertime in Guadeloupe where she had lived for 13 years before returning to France.  Guadeloupe is close to the equator.  Rita said, “People eat dinner around 6 p.m. of course.”  Right, of course.  But not of course. In so many conversations later dinnertimes are associated with being cool.  Do we have to now agree that Guadeloupe is not cool?  I like it there! 

It has to be an iceberg tip.  People eating early must be also seen as a number of other things (and I am not talking “early” like “nursing home early”).  Probably, as somehow not enjoying life.  But who is to say how to enjoy life?  I like to go out to dinner before going to the cinema, but what do I do if the movie starts at 8:00 p.m.?  I think enjoying life and being totally cool is dining at the time in the evening that responds to the contingencies of that evening and all that it holds.

There was a recent article published in the New Yorker magazine about groups of Chinese tourists traveling in Europe.  According to the article, the Chinese tourists typically chose to dine in Chinese restaurants in Europe, and to eat very quickly.  I wondered how this speed would be understood in some countries. Length of meal is another iceberg tip.  When it has to do with Americans, eating over a short period of time (associated as it is with MacDonalds) is typically seen as stupid and uncultured.  But I think that we have to agree that China has a long history and a rich culture.  Still, at least in the article, they sometimes also eat fast meals.  So now I think we have to admit that eating meals quickly can mean something else too.

Icebergs that are ideological are prevalent in intercultural discussions.  The habit of writing lists can be an ideological iceberg, at least in my experience.  My husband, who was also my colleague and director of my CNRS laboratory, once wrote a list of the tasks that the graduate students helping out at a summer school would potentially be asked to perform and sent it to the lab members.  I received that list and read it and saved it under the email for the department. I had no reaction to the list.  Meanwhile, around me, there was a huge reaction.  If I understand correctly, list making had great meaning in my laboratory.  Let’s just say that the meaning was bad and made reference to political parties. List making was right wing to our colleagues. Many other presumably small things, like the use of the word “efficient” can also be linked to ideological icebergs. 

So, when teaching at a business school in my French city (the class was called “Emotion and Culture: Implications for Management”), I gave my students a thought activity to do.  First, we proposed that it could be that “Americans are loud.”  Then I asked for two explanations for this loudness.  Easy: Americans are arrogant (and thus have to be heard), or Americans are poorly raised. These two cultural traits were salient explanations. Then I asked them to think of two neutral explanations. This took longer.  But one hand went up, “It could be that in America you talk more often over larger distances and so have to raise your voice.”  Maybe.  Another hand: “When you talk to someone who doesn’t speak your language, don’t you tend to talk louder.”  Maybe that too.  So then I asked, which came first, arrogance or the fact of living with neighbors who speak another language from you? 

We did this exercise with more nationalities than Americans.  We did this also with their (self) stereotypes of the French, the Germans, and so forth. This might sound trite to you, but my students reacted as if they had never thought of the possibility that things they believed were true could also be explained, even as an exercise, in terms of simple historical or environmental facts that don't requite judgment.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 5:15 AM JUN 8, 2011