What you think, you are.

19 Aug

If I hadn’t lived in Albania I would have been very confused by the way my Italian lodger empties the dishwasher. Glasses, pans and spoons pose no problem, but bowls are placed on a pile of plates, and plates on a pile of bowls, totally at random. Wooden spoons and spatulas find their place, but kitchen knives are nestled next to table knives.

Because I lived in Albania, where they obviously have a similar approach to cutlery and crockery, I know that he didn’t just get fed up half way through and stop caring where he put stuff. Instead, if his culture is like Albania’s, it makes no distinction between plates and (eating) bowls, or between kitchen knives and table knives. To fit out our kitchen in Tirana we got a pile of shallow bowls which served for everything from soup to bread and jam, and after searching in vain for proper table knives we got a packet of the awkward plastic knives that everyone else had – too sharp to be safe at the table, too small and blunt to be useful in the kitchen.

What interests me about this is not so much what plates different cultures eat off (although I’m sure there’s a PhD in there for someone), but the way our cultural assumptions affect the way we think,  behave and even see. My Italian lodger has perfectly good eyes and, if he stopped to think about it, could see that there is a pile of flat plates next to a pile of concave plates, but since he thinks of them all as plates, he doesn’t see it, so he slots them in at random. Similarly, in his mind knives are knives, so the fact that there is a cutlery drawer and a separate utensil drawer gives him no pause.

This sort of thing is often connected to language. In Albania, ‘pillow’ and ‘cushion’ are the same word, and people do seem more ready to use cushions as pillows than they would be here. A dislike of moths combined with a liking for butterflies strikes people as illogical, since they are both flutura.

It works the other way round, too. To me, there are different kinds of brushes but they are all still brushes. In Albanian there are two distinct words, so you have to think about what you’re using the brush for. Is it a sweeping motion (fshes) or a scrubbing / stroking motion (furce)? When you ‘change’ something, are you exchanging one thing for another (nderroj), or changing the form or substance of the thing itself (ndryshoj)?

All very boring if you’re not interested in comparative linguistics, I’m sure, but it has an application in our own language as well. There’s no male equivalent of ‘slut’, for instance, or any of its many synonyms. Also, ‘mistress’ might be the feminine equivalent of ‘master’, but it does not mean the same thing. There are well-known derogatory terms in British English for most ethnic groups, but not for white people. These things might seem tiny, but they do colour our thinking, because words are the tools we use to think about the world; they are the lens through which we see it. It is a good thing to be aware of the deficiencies of your lens.

George Orwell understood the power of words when he described “newspeak”. You can read about it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a brilliant but disturbing book.  You can also hear newspeak in real life, if you keep your ears open, especially when listening to politicians. (‘Efficiencies’ for ‘cuts’ would be one example.)

As for the title of this post, it comes from an excellent quote attributed to Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale:

“You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.”

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