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Archive for the ‘acquaintance with letters and makings’ Category

Every so often, usually after the house’s water tank has been dry for a few hours/days, the first flow from the faucet fills my bathroom sink with muddy water. The other day the mud was especially thick and of such a hue that for a moment I was sure the first of ten plagues had been visited upon my house:

Exodus 7:19 And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.

The water soon cleared, thankfully, and as of yet no scores of frogs are hippity-hopping into mine bedchamber or kneading troughs.

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Today on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor reads a poem called In the Coffee Shop by Carl Dennis. I see the poem as highlighting our inability or unwillingness to appreciate the motives of others. An excerpt:

The big smile the waitress gives you
May be a true expression of her opinion
Or may be her way to atone for glowering
A moment ago at a customer who slurped his coffee
Just the way her cynical second husband slurped his.

Think of the meager tip you left the taxi driver
After the trip from the airport, how it didn’t express
Your judgment about his service but about the snow
That left you feeling the earth a tundra
Only the frugal few could hope to cross.

One might see the actions described above as a sort of correspondence bias. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it:

We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and personalities. When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are “an angry person”. But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it’s because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.

We attribute our own actions to our situations, seeing our behaviors as perfectly normal responses to experience. But when someone else kicks a vending machine, we don’t see their past history trailing behind them in the air. We just see the kick, for no reason we know about, and we think this must be a naturally angry person – since they lashed out without any provocation.

Expats must grapple with an exaggerated version of this tendency often. When living in a foreign land, great is the temptation to attribute the (bad) actions of indigenous others to some national disposition: That icy Mädel spurned my advances last night at the club–what typical German brusqueness!

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