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A Swede in Germany

The effects of our base-line on perception / Follow-up: A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas

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Traditions [1] were the topic for a Christmas text last year. In the almost exactly one year since then, I have again and again noted various overlaps with the sub-topic of our perception of normality. More specifically, it seems that there is a point of “normality”, where something becomes so familiar that we do not notice or reflect upon it, or where we experience it highly differently from less familiar phenomena and/or from how others experience the same phenomenon.

A few examples:

  1. As children, I and my sister often stayed for prolonged times at our maternal grand-mother’s. She declined many wishes for pasta and rice with the argument that “we already had that once this week”—but had no qualms about using boiled* potatoes as the “staple” five to seven times a week. In all likelihood, she genuinely** did not perceive the paradox in this argumentation, being so used to potatoes that they were a standard part of any meal***—just like the glass of milk.

    *Mashed or fried potatoes happened on occasion; I am not certain whether she ever served French fries.

    **To which should be noted that she was not very bright—others might have been more insightful even in the face of ingrained eating habits. Unfortunately, back then, I took it to be just another case of dishonest adult “argumentation”.

    ***She was born in 1924 and grew up with a very different diet from even what I (1975) did, let alone what some born today will. Indeed, left to her own devices, deviations from boiled potatoes were more likely to have been e.g. kåldolmar (cabbage rolls) or rotmos (a rutabaga mash with some admixture of potatoes(!) and carrots) than rice or pasta.

    Consider similarly my own caffeine habits*: I drink large amounts of black coffee—no sugar, no milk, no cream, … This despite originally not liking the taste. When it comes to tea, I have tried repeatedly to use it as a substitute, but within a week or two of a cup a day, the experiment always ends, because I do not like the taste.** I have used e.g. Nespresso and Dulce Gusto machines, but eventually grew tired of the taste and returned to drip-brews. Similarly, when I ordered coffee in restaurants, I used to take the opportunity to have an espresso or a cappuccino—today, I almost invariably order a “regular” coffee. What is the difference, especially since I did not originally enjoy coffee? Simply this: I have drunk so much of it that it has become a taste norm. Tea does not have that benefit and other variations of coffee are implicitly measured as deviations from that norm. The latter might even taste better in the short term, but then I simply “grow tired” of the taste.

    *Also see parts of [1] and of a text on prices.

    **In fairness to tea: I have so far always used tea bags—some claim that they are a poor substitute for tea leaves.

    This item has some overlap with (but is not identical too) the concept of “an acquired taste”.

  2. Why does boy-meets-girl feel less hackneyed than childhood-friends-fall-in-love? (Cf. an excursion in [2].) Well, the former is so common that it does not register in the same way as the latter—despite the paradox. Or take teenage-girl-and-much-much-older-vampire-fall-in-love: Only a very small minority of all works of fiction has this theme, and it would likely amount to a minority even of the vampire genre. Still, it feels so hackneyed that my reaction typically is “not this shit AGAIN—I will watch something else”. A higher degree of rarity can even increase the perceived hackneyedness, because the concept registers more strongly.* Beyond a certain rarity limit, the recognition factor might be so large that the automatic reaction is not “hackneyed” but “plagiarized”…

    *However, another partial explanation can be that a theme has still not been explored enough, leaving works using a certain concept too similar. For instance, the overall vampire genre is much more diverse today than in the hey-days of Christopher Lee, because so many new variations of the theme have been tried over time—“vampire movie” does no longer automatically imply scary castles, big capes, the surreptitious biting of sleeping maidens, or similar.

  3. Virtually every generation complains about the music of the following generations. To some degree this can be due to actual falling quality (e.g. through increased commercialization or a shift of focus from music-on-the-radio to exotic-dancing-on-TV) or a greater filtering of old music (where only the great hits have survived); however, a major part is the base-line that we are used to (likely coupled with nostalgia). Notably, the hit music of a certain period appears to fall mostly into just several fairly specific genres, with a great internal similarity in “sound”. Those who grow up* with a certain sound will tend to see it as a norm, be more likely to be estranged by newer genres and be more able to differentiate within and appreciate the old genres. (Hence complaints like “it all sounds the same”.)

    *In my impression, most people listen to more music and more intensely in their youth than at higher ages, and they might be more easily malleable to boot (be it for biological reasons or because the prior exposure has been lower). However, I suspect that amount of exposure is more important than age.

    A similar effect is almost certainly present between contemporaneous genres that differ considerably.

  4. As a small child, I somehow got into a discussion with my parents as to why the clock on the kitchen wall was not audibly ticking. They claimed that it was, but I could not hear anything. On their insistence, I spent a short period listening intently—and there it was! I was simply so used to the sound that it had not registered with me, until I deliberately tried to hear it…

    In an interesting contrast, I often found the antique wall-clocks at both my father’s and my maternal grand-mother’s so annoying that I used to stop them—in turn, slightly annoying my respective hosts. This might at least partially have been due to my base-line being “tickless”; however, they were also much louder than the (modern) kitchen-clock, and might also have had a more irregular or prolonged sound. (The antiques used an entirely mechanical, crude-by-modern-standards clockwork with pendulums and whatnots; the kitchen-clock had a modern clockwork, ran on a battery, and likely used a balance wheel.)

    As an aside, this points to the risk that isolating one-self from disturbances can lead to an increased sensitivity to the disturbances that do occur, while increased exposure can bring greater tolerance—a dilemma that I have long struggled with as someone sensitive to noise. An extreme example is present in the movie “The Accountant”, in which the autistic protagonist deliberately exposes himself to very loud noises, strobing lights, and physical pain during shorter intervals, apparently trying to increase his tolerance. (I caution that said movie did not strike me as overly realistic.)

  5. When I lived in Sweden, German seemed a fairly ugly language with too strong (in some sense) pronunciations of many sounds (including “r” and “s”). After twenty years in Germany, it sounds just fine, while I am often struck by Swedish as bland and lacking in character. Back then, I heard how German differed from Swedish; today, I hear how Swedish differs from German.

    English is somewhere in between and has not struck me in the same way. However, it is notable that TV and movies have left me with a U.S. base-line, in that I mostly (mis-)register U.S. English as “without an accent”,* while e.g. any version of British English comes across as British**. This is the odder, since I actually consider (some versions of) British English more pleasant to the ear and have a tendency to drift in the “English English” direction, or even towards amateurish pseudo-RP, on those rare occasions that I actually speak English.

    *But many versions of U.S. English stand out as non-standard, including the heavy Southern ones.

    **Often with a more specific sub-classification, e.g. “standard”, Cockney, Irish, Scottish; in some cases, as something that I recognize as a specific accent but am unable to place geographically. (The same can happen with U.S. dialects, but is much rarer—possibly, because British English is more diverse.)

Outside of examples like the above, there are at least two areas that might be at least partially relevant and/or over-lapping: Firstly, opinion corridors and similar phenomena. Secondly, various physical phenomena, e.g. drug resistance, specificity of training, or how the human body reacts to cold: Apparently, Eskimos “in the wild” have the ability to work without gloves in freezing temperatures for prolonged times without ill-effects, pain, whatnot—but a few years in “civilization” make them lose this ability. Allegedly, Tierra del Fuego natives have (had) the ability to sleep almost naked in free air at low (but not freezing) temperatures, while the typical Westerner can feel cold at a little below room temperature without a duvet. I have myself witnessed two or three Westerners who walk around in t-shirt and shorts all year round (in Sweden and/or Germany—not Florida), at least one of which made the papers for this habit—he claimed that the body adapts* if one can push through the early discomfort.

*The exact nature of those adaptions are beyond my current knowledge, but at least some of them likely relate to how fast the body switches from a low-isolation to a high-isolation state and how strong the isolation becomes. That this is trainable to some degree can be easily verified through only taking cold showers for a few weeks and noting how strongly the discomfort is reduced in that time frame. Increase of “brown fat” likely also plays in.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 21, 2018 at 9:27 pm

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