Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling

rakugoka

“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved the life of Santa Claus. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

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