The Dynamics Of Incomprehension

One of the reasons why I left Norway in 2014 with the intention of never going back was that an increasing number of young people were unable or unwilling to understand my slightly accented Norwegian, which I had been speaking for thirty years but did not learn young enough for perfection. Contrary to what one might expect, the old folks had no difficulty with me, but the writing was obviously on the wall; they would die off and leave me only with the kids who responded to everything with a “huh?”

It was all the stranger, therefore, when I was dropped into a Francophone environment for seven months. I myself consider that my French was very poor, and that people’s assurance that I am speaking well represented the triumph of good manners over truth. But people did understand me, and generally did not go “huh?” as their default.

I asked a linguist about my suspicion that cultures differed in their willingness to understand their own language spoken in a slightly non-standard guise, and he confirmed that yes, some could adapt and some couldn’t. Most forgiving of accents and errors, he said, were the British. At the opposite extreme, young Norwegians, despite growing up in a society multicultural enough to get 77 of them murdered by an opponent of immigration, seemed remarkably intolerant of the slightest deviation from their own speech.

It is very easy to attribute this to “stupidity”, but this is not such a simple category as you might assume. Understanding a foreigner is probably not related to anything measured in IQ tests. To me it looks like a separate faculty, which the British often possess and they don’t, of being able to extrapolate and fill in the gaps by the exercise of imagination. When I struggled to express something in French, the Francophones (who were not old-school Parisians!) generally tried to meet me half-way, mentally hearing the correct grammar and supplying the words I didn’t know.

Ultimately, this is about willingness to make the effort, which is not a cognitive matter but a moral one. It is a matter of whether you can be bothered or not. The Norwegian youngster’s uncompromising inability to understand what I want from her shop is sheer mental inertia and unwillingness to venture beyond the comfort zone of music and fashion with her peers.

This might be the beginning of a new analysis of what we so facilely call ‘stupidity’ but which is actually a number of different things. One is imagination, another is willingness to make an effort, yet another is intolerance of difference. What makes them cluster together is laziness.

Posted on December 1, 2013 at 17:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

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