Friday, May 30, 2008


In the first place, I feel fully dressed in my T-shirt and boxers. My boxers are very definitely old-person undergarments; they're loose, they come down to my mid-thigh, and the fly has a button. I've answered the door in them, gone out to get the mail or to get something from my car, and felt completely covered.

In the second place, Oregon has wonderful evening breezes. I walk home from work, and the first thing I want to do when I get in the door is open the windows and the sliding glass door and let in some cool air. But I also want to shed my belt, and usually my pants as well. And here's where it gets slightly irrational. I always wait until my pants are off before I open the window.

And the reason I do doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I feel fully clothed in my boxers, but I feel very odd taking off my pants in front of an open window. I can't pin down how it's any different from taking off my coat, which I'd feel perfectly normal doing in front of an open window. Before, I'm fully clothed; after, I'm fully clothed. During, I'm fully clothed. So what's weird about it?

It seems to me that it's an example of some of the fuzzy-logic, very pragmatic cultural knowledge that most people soak up without thinking about it, but that a few people have a hard time handling. Clothing norms, in general, are more complicated than many of us realize, which is the chief reason young children don't grasp them too thoroughly. To a toddler, it's difficult to understand why it's okay to take off your hat in public, but not okay to take off your underwear. Both are discrete articles of clothing that cover specific body parts.

Even worse, the norms aren't universal; they're subject to extreme cultural variability. I've read about aboriginal cultures in which complete nudity is customary in just about all situations, but they'd find it deeply humiliating if anyone watched them eat. They build very solid shelters in which everyone can eat all alone, out of sight of everyone else. I can't imagine what they'd make of our restaurants. Probably the same thing we make of pictures of nekkid folks in National Geographic: we just roll our eyes and wonder at what weirdos they are.

Most folks walking around have some sense of what semantic meaning is, and all but a few recognize syntactic meaning with just a brief explanation and a couple of simple examples. But I think we way downplay the difficulties that crop up with the third dimension of meaning: pragmatics. I know that most folks understand what dyslexia is, and that more and more folks have a grasp on other learning disabilities, such as auditory processing, dysgraphia, etc., but surprisingly few have any idea about nonverbal learning disorders. We're beginning to recognize the problem in kids: they aren't sure when it's okay to enter a conversation, or how to use eye contact when interacting with others, or how much personal space others expect. Similarly, they may not understand what clothes to wear, or possibly how to wear them, which is an even more complex subject.

And I suppose I also think that we underestimate the degree to which the affective, pragmatic, nonverbal stream of information is becoming more complex all the time. We all take it as obvious that there are more things to know, that we swim in a sea of information, that advances in communication technology produce more and more data that everyone is expected to absorb and process, but I wonder if we recognize that the world is also a more complicated place in ways that aren't reducible to data? What with increasing immigration, the erosion of ethnocentrism, and in general growing understanding that difference is less a threat than a resource, there are more pragmatic modes, more ways of behaving, more fuzzy, complex formulas for complying with others' expectations than in the past.

I suspect we don't recognize it. I think we're still stuck on trying to persuade the recalcitrant that those who are different aren't necessarily wrong or bad, so we haven't made more than inching progress in the next step, which involves sizing up just how much we have to learn, and how we're going to do it. And when we do, and when we realize that these aren't things that fit neatly into formulas, textbooks or training sessions, I think we're probably in for a brand new type of information sickness, something like the overload people feel after the first few days in a new job or a new school, but far more intense. And along the way, I suspect we'll see symptoms that resemble those of data-driven information sickness, including memory lapses and other burps and slips in rational thinking.

Like odd depantsing rituals.

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