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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Explicit Contradictions, An Experiment

Okay, I'll get back to catching up soon, I promise. But I'm in a mood today...

I have written off and on about my mixed desirefor an independent woman and a dependent woman. Likewise I have implicitly discussed my own desire to both remain independent but also find somebody to depend upon. I've also off-hand mentioned many other related (but not the same) contradictions in relationships: Confidence and insecurity. Assertiveness and shyness. Dominance and submissiveness.

There are other contradictions as well: Experience and novelty. Selfishness and selflessness. Cute but impressive. Strong but soft. Fast and slow. The list goes on.

European romanticists glorify the perfect mate where all these contradictions exist, but somehow magically match your moods. There it's a matter of timing which side of the spectrum you're on, to match your mate's needs. This non-explicit give and take is sometimes called sharing. Largely this expectation is not fulfilled, especially in the long term. It's easy in the early days of a relationship when both partner's assumed expectations are usually also correct. Be romantic. Be sexy. And yet, as intimacy develops, the spectrum is more complex and therefore guesses are more likely to be in error. The conventional wisdom? Communications. Tell your partner. Yet a frequent complaint about explicit communications is that it is not romantic.

Much of Asian relationship culture takes a different tact. The fundamental philosophy of ying and yang (although usually over-simplified) partitions roles more explicitly. Confucian roles are a visible example of this, but culturally this goes deeper, for example into language modes.

It is widely believed that language modes in Asian cultures make those languages more complex than Western languages. Some Asian languages have as many as a dozen forms of address pervading the language syntax depending on relative roles of the speaker and listener, and the type of subject or object. These are the most common mistakes made by foreign speakers, who are usually taught simplified modes of address. Yet there are complex language modes in Western languages as well; they just aren't syntactically defined. You can tell a respectful or gentlemanly mode of address in English when you hear it. There are many variations. You can recognize a well-bred speaker quickly. But in an Asian language, there is the crutch of syntax -- the mode is made explicit in the rules of the language rather than in the personality of the speaker.

The language reflects the point I make above. The West made relationships implicit and based on personal context. Asia made them explicit and based on role and topic. Because the western approach is based on your variable and individual feelings, constant communications is needed, but there is a high likelihood of continuously negotiated compromises which can cause relationship stress (for example, keeping track of who is compromising more or more often). Because the Asian approach is based on a relatively invariant role and shared context (something both parties can see), you can create expectations, but there is a high degree of conformity that can create individual stress. (The oversimplified version of this would be individual vs. society, an Asian stereotype which I dislike because it discounts the close relationship between individual reward and social reward.)

In this day and age, Asia has a rich mixture of Asian and Western cultural influences. So in a recent relationship, I experimented with this. My experiment was in making several of the aforementioned contradictions explicit, yet taking into account personal context. I wanted to create a hybrid of the Asian and Western systems, to see if that made things work better.

The thinking went like this. The biggest issue with the Western system was the overhead of constant communications, and the biggest advantage was romance and adaptability to personal needs. The biggest issue with the Asian system was personal inflexibility, and the biggest advantage was the ability to build on a foundation of expectations.

My proposed solution was simple: less frequent communications, but the communications had to embody contextual expectations, or rules. The whole system rests on three foundations: 1) creating rules; 2) making and keeping promises, and 3) no lies to each other, not even white lies to the benefit of the other's feelings.

The foundation of rules enables the personal flexibility. Forcing the articulation of these rules, like communications, is a useful tool for self-awareness. But making them rules (conditions and actions, i.e. "when this happens, do this") means they can be stored and used later, reducing the frequency of communications.

The foundation of promises creates a trust around infrequent communications. This is because communicated rules are explicitly verified (by a promise), result in relationship expense (the commitment of promise, which reduces frivolous rules), and carry force. What force? Since this system has no social pressure for conformity, it substitutes pride, which I have found to be a strong (and often negative) force in relationships. Breaking a promise is a loss of pride.

The foundation of no lies substitutes for the Asian roles that keeps expectations very reliable. You can count on role-based expectations in Asia because they are very visible, including visible in the language, and therefore something upon which society and relationships can be built. The no lies creates a similar kind of transparency.

So this system trades off a little short-term personal flexibility for an ability to build longer-term expectations. It seemed the right approach for a long-term relationship, although probably unnecessary overhead for a short-term one. That short-term flexibility is just emotional randomness anyhow, right?

So how did it work out? Stay tuned.


Blogger SBB said...

I suspect you are thinking about this whole relationship shebang too much. You suppose a lot of western/eastern stereotypes, while I think, for the overwhelming majority it is really what works for the individuals involved, rather than a static placebo state.

That short-term flexibility is just emotional randomness anyhow

Totally, but it also translates to long term compromises for both parties which solidify into what is generally known as the elusive long-term, stable relationship.

I think you have just not yet found the right girl (and just because you have found a lot of girls doesn't mean any of them are the right one). Or you are not emotionally ready to make that sort of commitment.

Either way, when it happens, I doubt it will be because of any manipulation on your part - rather a natural progression of give and take.

Then again, nothing wrong with being a perpetual bachelor.

6/15/2005 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's the lexicon in Asian languages that has built-in forms of address. Nothing in syntax has anything to do with it. If anything, Western languages would let you use syntactic constructions to recognize a well-educated speaker.

Otherwise, interesting thoughts.

6/16/2006 9:32 AM  

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