One of the most philosophically interesting experiences in being a foreigner is that you can see how people categorise you almost physically. I have lived in France for 30 years now, but I still have a strong accent. I don’t really look foreign, so I have often had the experience, in a shop or at a party, of someone who has not heard me speak ask me something, and when I reply suddenly change attitude and expression Sometimes they look at me astounded, they stare at me as if it requires intense effort to decode what I say, their mouth moves silently repeating what I say, as if unsure that something meaningful is being produced. Usually this surprise effect vanishes after a few minutes, and their perception of me is normalised into some ready-made category or other, but even then it rarely has much to do with who I am.

But this is just a more perceptible example of what goes on all the time. I am officially an English teacher, so many people respond with tolerant amusement or by turning a deaf ear, if I express an opinion on something philosophical that is being discussed. I am just not categorised by most people as belonging to a suitable notional domain for being taken seriously philosophically. Even when people know more about my intellectual history they have trouble coming up with a suitable category to contain me, as I don’t conform to any of their stereotypes. This usually results in me being sub-categorised. For instance, I speak and write French quite well at an intellectual level, but ask me to describe my concrete surroundings and I will begin to hesitate and search for my words. And sometimes I make basic grammatical mistakes, that even a child of 8 wouldn’t make. There is a whole class of people who will unconsciously stick to the impression that my whole intellectual existence is at the level of these mistakes, and talk to me as if had a mental age of 7. The problem is that usually I cannot correct this impression myself, any effort I make to show that this is not an accurate perception is itself filtered through the same category and just confirms their initial prejudice. Very often it takes some sort of outside intervention, other people listening to me and responding to me seriously, to change the way I have been categorised.

I think this whole set of experiences exists at all levels, and that the experience of being a foreigner is merely one very visible example of a far more general phenomenon.

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3 commentaires pour I AM NOT YOUR CATEGORY

  1. Jason Hills dit :

    I would concur.

    I’ve had similar though less pronounced experiences all my life, which I attribute to the pulling up roots and relocating to a different area and culture every few years for my entire life. When one jumps fences so often, at least in my case, one forgets that some people do not even see the fences that contain their thoughts. And thus when one jumps that fence in front of them, the person responses as if one did something quite odd. Add enough oddities together, and it tends to have a negative social effect when interacting with people from a very homogeneous culture.

    Does this sound familiar?

    I spent my early childhood in Turkey, then the American south (large city), then the American far north (abject rural), and have been moving about as an adult ever since. It seems that each homogeneous group has different expectations and tolerances from deviation, and if one has a strong personality as I do, then one is bound to be noticed for transgression. I mean, I don’t even like steak!!!!! And I now live in Texas!


    • terenceblake dit :

      Yes. An amusing anecdote: I was teaching an English class and a girl student suddenly said « You remind me of Ben in LOST ». I was a little surprised, but I replied « Yes, because of the alterity ». The class immediately corrected my French saying « Oh you mean *authority* ». This happens often when I use a French word that my pupils don’t know, they « correct » my French. I explained what « alterity » means and they agreed with the first girl that it was a good description of me.


      • Jason Hills dit :

        Yes, exactly.

        The phenomenon frequently displays itself when others need to « correct » your behavior. I suspect we share the frustration that we may very carefully and intentionally perform something that others react to as a « mistake. » Siiiigh. The only time I really feel at home is when I’m in a crowd of ex-patriots. I remember soem games of « Captain Plume »…. First, they are constantly reminded of their preconceptions. Second, The person who’s likely to be in that position often has more social awareness than your typical homogeneous American. Speaking of that, one thing that drives me crazy is the conflation of social conformity with social awareness.


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