Figures of Speech

It’s just a fun picture.  There’s no connection.

It’s just a fun picture. There’s no connection.

So, I was thinking this evening (instead of going to sleep, as I should be even now) about some of the differences I’ve experienced in the Japanese culture, especially in social and group cultures, of which I have significantly more experience even these four or five weeks than the whole of last semester.  In joining the Ballroom Dance Club here on campus, I have had the chance to experience a lot of different group dynamics, and it occurred to me this evening a way to compare some of what I have experienced to American life, and how I would explain that to someone here.

There’s a saying in Japan that goes, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”  (Some of us like to rephrase it, “the nail that sticks up will ultimately gash someone’s foot open and make them swear and bleed,” but that’s not really related, unless you talk about foreigners here being nails sticking up. ^_^)  This phrase is generally taken to mean that everyone must do what they are told, and live in their place without trying to move, and to a great extent that holds true even today.  But you can also look at it a bit differently, in that it’s saying that there is an order to everything, a place for everything, and it’s not good to screw with that.  I call it Japanese bureaucracy, and generally I dislike it, but it works here.  I don’t see a lot of Japanese people complaining that things aren’t moving fast enough, or they want to do more.  If they want to do more, they add things they do, not complain about things moving too slowly.

See, for me, having dance experience, I have already picked up the beginning step-pattern that they teach all of the newbies here.  The first-year students will be working on these patterns for the next several months, and will eventually become pretty good at them.  I’m already as good as a second or third-year at these patterns, or so I’ve been told.  Somehow I tend to think that’s not one of those “exaggerate to make the foreigner feel successful” moments, either, because dance isn’t really about what language you speak with your mouth.  This increased pace has also frustrated me, however, as I know I can learn MORE, faster, and still improve, but getting someone to teach me, well, is like asking the mountains to move.*  And I think that this is a prime example of the nail being hammered back down.  They see me and perceive that I’m a new student to the club, and so call me a first-year, despite the fact that I’m soon to graduate, and am at least three years older than even their seniors.  They see me as a nail, and even though I’m a nail of exceptional quality, I have a place to be, and that place has not yet gotten to the point where it’s time to learn more.

Along with this, however, is the fact that if other nails are weaker, they get don’t get left behind.  It matters more that you are a nail, or a plank, or a screw, or whatever, than how well you were crafted, or how well you fulfill your role.

*Incidentally, I have gotten word that if, outside of sanctioned practices, I ask someone to show me more, I can probably get that, seeing as how I won’t be here for the normal time of a first year student.

On the flip side of this, I think the appropriate figure of speech for American group dynamic is “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  Usually this means that if you have someone really weak in a group, the whole group is weak, and it’s the basis for having tryouts for team sports, etc…  However if you look at it from another perspective, then it provides incentive for everybody to a) try their best so as not the BE the weakest link, and b) the people who are better to always be helping those below them to become better.  This doesn’t mean that they just help their technique, however, this means that every link should strive to be as strong as the strongest, if not more so.  And that the stronger links should all fall in to help the weaker ones to be at least as strong as they.  So then, even if you’re a newbie, if you’re as good as a third year, you generally get grouped with them, and people below you will look to you for help.  Perhaps you even MORE so because you’re ALSO new, which makes you part of their group, thus a bit more approachable, but still higher on the link-strength scale.  Were I to join a similar dance team in America, I feel fairly strongly that I would rapidly become one of the primary dancers, because people would show me what they could, and I would pick it up and get better at it almost as fast as they could teach it to me.  Even if it was my first semester there, they wouldn’t hold me back just because I was new, assuming I had the skills.

Furthermore, if one link breaks, then all of the others (or at least the strongest, most important) gather around it to help it back up, and help it to become strong again, because you cannot have weaknesses in your chain.  However if a nail is sticking up, it’s up the the carpenter to come and hammer it back down.  The other nails would only upset things by trying to fix the situation themselves.

Does this make any sense?  Do you guys see it being this way?  Do you have better phrases to use?  Leave a comment or send me an email and let me know! ^_^

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