Friday 2 March 2012

I Wish I Was Special

Chopsticks. Always with the fucking chopsticks. I spend hours crafting a witty, eloquent, and insightful post – a post which directly address our capacities for perception and understanding, and thus skewers the very heart of the human condition – and all people want to talk about is fucking chopsticks. It doesn’t matter how many clever-clever references to fictional Victorian junkies I slip in, it all comes back down to the fucking Magic Food Twigs. 

Still, I’m all about giving the public what they want, so let’s go there and clear the air, shall we? What is it about these things which provoke so much ire in so many people? After all, when you get down to it they’re only some overgrown toothpicks.

That’s the nub of it, I think. They’re just a couple of shafts of wood, but many Japanese people appear to regard them not as fairly mundane eating utensils, but as these fantastic, recondite wands of power, the mysteries of which are impenetrable to those poor lost souls unversed in the wisdom of the ages. You can appreciate the awe and horror they must experience when one not immersed in the rites of the brotherhood from birth casually, blithely, almost insultingly wields the Arcane Mouth Poles of Wonder. Imagine if you’d trained half your life as a concert pianist and some fucker with perfect pitch turns up and nails Grieg at the first try. You’d find it worth commenting on as well.

Now, you may well feel that I’m being a touch unfair here. You may feel that the Japanese people who compliment me on my virtuosity with the Unfathomable Mastication Rods are just trying to be polite, just trying to make conversation as best they can. It’s no worse than the British obsession with the weather – at least they’re making an effort to connect, eh?


It’s that ‘connection’ thing though. That’s the problem here. I recently led a seminar on 'Presentations' for some municipal employees. Now, there’s not much point in trying to teach a load of new vocabulary in a one-day course (though with seven contact-hours it was still longer than I’ll spend with some of my high school students over an entire Spring term), and as with so many who learned their English through The System, it wasn’t vocabulary that these students were lacking, it was an ability to actually use it.

Japanese speeches have a tendency towards the formal and stiff (for the benefit of my American readers I should point out that that was deliberate understatement). Without wanting to get too detailed about the Confucian vs Socratic argument, there isn’t really any tradition of rhetoric, because there isn’t really any formal tradition of persuasion. Decision-making in Japan is a painstakingly slow process of consensus building. There’s no need for blood-and-thunder calls-to-arms when decisions are reached through endless, iterative rounds of consultation.

Well, I say 'consensus' and 'consultation'. Of course what really happens is that the boss makes a decision and everyone else spends ages realizing that’s exactly what they think as well, and figuring out how best to implement it without fucking up everything they’ve done already.

It’s Kabuki, not Shakespeare. Falstaff, not Henry V. The gentlemen of Japan now a-bed will not think themselves accursed, nor hold their manhoods cheap, because they’re all already at their desks, looking busy and waiting for someone else to make a decision. Thus speeches are given almost entirely for form’s sake, with all the warmth, easy charm, and charisma you'd expect.


The simplest. most effective way for most Japanese people, most people from anywhere, to improve their presentations is to realize that it’s fine to inject a bit of their personality into it from the start. Preferable at the start, in fact. People, audiences, make emotional connections more readily than intellectual ones. Don’t start your speech with a bald statement of intent (a bold one, however, is fine). Don’t start with a list of figures and dates. Start with yourself. Tell the audience who you are and why they should care about what you have to say. Make a fucking connection.

That’s what we spent most of the morning covering. I probably swore less. I also may have used the word ‘exordium’ which would have gone over everyone’s heads but served to establish my credentials. And I definitely touched on ethos and pathos, but not in those words. Ethos is an appeal to authority (‘I know the word ‘exordium’’) and pathos is an appeal to emotion.

The easiest way to make a connection with a large group of people is by establishing a common bond or purpose. The quick and nasty way to do this is by calling on a hated third group, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. You don’t need me to tell you about dog-whistle politics. The less ethically suspect way is to actually demonstrate that common bond, ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen…’ We’re all the same, we’re all in this together.

Except Ireland, apparently.
Ireland can fuck right off.

British small-talk about the weather actually covers both those angles. The weather can be invoked as some hostile external force, the hated other, against which we doughty Brits stand together, united, heeding not the unrelenting tyranny of mild winters and periodically warm summers. As adversaries go, the British weather is actually pretty crappy. Less Heath Ledger as The Joker and more Arnie as Mr Freeze. Which is the point; it’s so utterly unextreme that it’s impossible to take offence or be excluded. As ice-breakers go, it’s perfect.

Because that’s what the chopstick compliments are, really. Ice-breakers. A little light warm-up before the conversational heavy lifting starts. And it’s also why they’re a bad, bad choice of subject matter. Remember what I said about trying to establish common ground with your interlocutor? Creating a feeling that you’re both on the same team?

You’ll be doing better than one of the older guys on the seminar, if so. Despite hammering this ‘establish common ground’ theme all morning, when we sit down to our pre-ordered bento at lunch he still opens with The Chopsticks Compliment. 

If, like him, you're still unsure why that's not good, this is how it breaks down –

1.    I am doing something that should be considered normal.
2.    You consider the fact I am doing this normal thing worthy of comment.
3.    You consider it worthy of comment because it is surprising to you that I am doing this normal thing.
4.    It is surprising to you that I am doing this normal thing because you think that I am not normal.

I know we all like to consider ourselves as special and unique little snowflakes, but branding someone as unusual and different is not the best opening gambit if you’re looking to create a shared mutual space. It’s a clear, if unintended, labelling of you as ‘other’ from the outset. ‘You are not one of us. You never will be.’

That’s why it pisses people off. It’s not the endless repetition of the same observation, it’s not the clearly hollow praise; it’s the obvious, immediate, unthinking imposition of division from the word ‘Go’. Sometimes I do wish I was fucking special, but the truth is I’m not, and neither are you, and neither are they.


  1. All I can say is, I wish I had written this. Perfect.

  2. Radiohead's "Packt like sardines in a crushed tin box"
    was one of my go to tunes for testing rapid bass response on my competition sound systems.

    I've said it before. I look forward to returning to Hawaii where we use chopsticks I can make something and offer forks just to tell a Japanese person how great they are with em'

    "Hey look everybody...Taro can use a fork!!!...Wow Taro!!

    I know your point was bigger...I just really wanna do that ;)

  3. I read your title and thought you were going to be like half of Australia and whinging about not getting Radiohead tickets!

    The chopsticks thing - what really gets me is that they are watching me eat so closely.

  4. Shylock was probably good with chopsticks.

  5. Ant - Thank you. Lots of wishing going on here today.

    Chris - The sad fact is they'll have absolutely no idea what you're on about. Still, I've never been above laughing at my own jokes, so don't let that hold you back.

    Kathryn - I've seen them live a few times. I saw them in Victoria Park when they were touring 'In Rainbows'. All very contemplative and restrained for half an hour or so, then they play the first few chords of Just and it's as though 20,000 people all remembered how to shout, and that they needed to do so immediately. Phenomenal.

    Will - One more thing to add to my list of 'reasons to never lend people money'.

  6. Radiohead; YES! Pretty good live too, I always assumed they wouldn't be for some reason. ***It actually pulled me in to continue reading.***

    Regarding overgrown toothpicks, the titanium spork takes the cake. I can stab, scoop AND cut.

    Nicely written blog.

    1. Cheers.

      The spork's nice for picnics and the like, but does suffer from having a truly ridiculous name.

      I'd start every post with a Radiohead song if I didn't think it'd get boring too quickly. Frankly I could use 'Just' for half the stuff and it'd work just fine.

      'You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts...'