Generalizations

Generalization is a very important skill. It underlies language – it’s our capacity to recognize that this chair and that chair share enough features that we can give them one name and use that name to communicate about a whole host of real world objects and eventually create abstractions which we can communicate about in the same way.

Children use generalization to learn grammar – they listen intently to everything everyone says around them, and eventually they discover a set of rules that seem to apply and they use these rules to create new things to say – things that are more than simply imitations of what their parents have said, but that are genuinely novel creations – genuine uses of language. Some linguists are so amazed by this fact that they are willing to believe that grammar is innate rather than learned rather than believe that children could learn language so quickly.

One of the mistakes children make most often is to overgeneralize – for instance, once they learn that the past tense is formed by adding “-ed” to a verb, they begin using words like “eated” and “goed” and “maked”. This child has learned the rule, but has not yet learned the exceptions.

I think this is pretty much the universally accepted order of learning things – first you learn the rule, then you learn the exceptions to the rule. I think this applies equally to my time in Georgia.

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When I first got to Georgia I noticed that at my workplace no one would ever enter a room without knocking on the door – this culture was so extreme that I once wondered how anyone ever found their way into an empty room if there was no one inside it to tell them to come in. With no frame of reference, I put this on my mental heap of “Things about Georgia”, with the intention of sorting through it later.

I later realized that this door-knocking thing didn’t really happen anywhere else in Georgia. It must just have been a thing about my particular workplace… or it could have been my imagination… but the point is, when you are new to a place, it’s hard to find the right scope for your generalizations.

The first time I stayed with a family in Georgia they tried to give me plastic flip-flops to wear while I sat in their living room watching Georgian Survivor. I declined but they insisted, explaining that the flip-flops were new and clean. I noticed that everyone in the family was wearing some kind of flip-flop or slipper. I thought they were just weird, like those people in America who make you take your shoes off when you go in their house..

In retrospect, it seems obvious that it is almost inconceivably unusual for a person in Georgia to walk around the house without house slippers. Walking around in socks, or barefoot… on the dirty ground… and in the winter the floor is ice cold… that’s crazy. At this point, I have owned house slippers so long I’ve already worn completely through one pair and bought a second. I’ve actually thought about buying house slippers for my guests to wear when they visit.

The point is, sometimes you think something is a nationwide thing and it turns out to be just an odd quirk of a particular workplace. Sometimes you think something is a weird family eccentricity and it turns out to be an absolute cultural imperative. When you notice something different, you have no choice but to make your best guess… and often that guess is wrong.

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We need to go through it, I think – just like toddlers need to pass through the “goed eated maked” stage – before we can even start to put a finger on the deeper complexities of an entire culture. That’s why I don’t look down on people who are new to Georgia now and who make the same kinds of mistakes that I made – who say really shockingly offensive or ignorant or oversimplified things, who are really frustrated over very insignificant problems, who just don’t seem to get it. They’re learning just like I learned.

And at the same time, I am a little less annoyed at all the haters who complained about the things I used to say and the generalizations I used to make. I am finally starting to realize what I must have sounded like to them (judging by how the newer people often sound to me). I still think those people were wrong to criticize me in the way they did – just like I would be wrong for yelling at or insulting a two-year-old for saying “eated” – but now I realize that they themselves have probably never gone through the experience of adapting to a foreign culture – or they have, but they lack introspection – and so they have no foundation from which to appreciate what a person goes through in trying to come to terms with radically new situations.

A lot of people told me that it was wrong of me to make generalizations. It wasn’t. Generalizations are necessary for learning. As long as you realize that learning is a continuous process and that generalizations have to be adjusted in light of new information – and have the tact not to insult people too much during your learning process – you should do just fine.

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3 Responses to Generalizations

  1. George from Georgia says:

    Nobody would write this better than you, Neal. You are on the right track.

  2. I like how you compared a child’s language acquisition to the Traveler’s understanding of his “unhome”. The latter is definitely not innate, so thanks for the advice.

    “The fear of error is the death of progress”

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