Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cultural vagueness and an "extratropical" storm

Boston is set to experience an "extratropical storm" this weekend. What is an "extratropical storm"? Well, according to the Boston Globe, it means that:

"...the center of the swirl of clouds will cool down, causing the storm to lose some of its punch. The strongest winds will be aloft -- not on the ground -- and less rain is likely to fall than would with a warm tropical storm or hurricane."

One striking feature of the US is the level of technical jargon about weather (witness the "doppler radar" forecasts on Boston TV). When I look at weather forecasts in Ireland, they seem hopelessly vague by comparison. I hear "there may be some scattered showers over the weekend" and I think "where?", "when exactly will the showers start?", "how long will they last?". But, in my experiences of Boston weather forecasts, the very technical and specific forecasts often do not actually turn out to be accurate, and I think "why be so specific?".

Where does this difference come from?

Shades of grey ("gray" in US English) are acceptable in Ireland, and it is often seen as being unreasonable (or worse, "pushy") to try to nail something down. Whereas, by contrast, in the US things have to be black and white and it is unacceptable to be vague about anything. Remember that the Irish Language survived for thousands of years without words for "Yes" and "No" (as William Safire notes in the New York Times). One of my personal theories is that the Irish weather itself may contribute to this vagueness, since it is never really summer or winter weather, even in winter or summer, and always somewhere in between. It is often "half-raining", and "half-light" goes on for hours in the evenings during the summer months.

As an Irish person, I also think that often life itself is vague. In the US, there is a strong cultural pressure to have a life plan, to plan things exactly. When the plan breaks down, you make another plan, but you don't say "maybe it's futile to plan like that, maybe I should just formulate rules which will work in an unplannable world". In Ireland, people are more likely to "muddle through". This looks hopelessly disorganized to Americans. By contrast, Americans may seem to Irish people to try to place undue expectations and controls over inherently vague things (like the weather). I think this goes back to the cultural DNA of America: pioneers taming the natural country and forging their own destiny.

A case in point is travel and holidays. One lesson I've learned is that when planning a holiday in the US, it is perfectly acceptable for Irish people to say "We'll arrive into New York on Friday, then leave from Boston the next weekend, and when we're there we'll figure out the bit in between", and have a great holiday. By contrast, most American holidays in Ireland are planned ahead like military operations, with schedules nailed down and little leeway. Then, pieces do not work out as expected (e.g. a B&B loses a reservation) and all hell breaks loose. If you forced an Irish person into this nailed-down schedule, they would feel constricted, and think "how can you plan like that?". If you forced an American into the free-form roving holiday ("vacation"), they may feel annoyed by the lack of a nailed-down schedule. Americans expect this nailed-down black-and-white organization. Irish people expect vagueness.

Yes, I am generalising here. But, just my observations from living in both countries. I would be more in the "shades of grey" camp. But, I'm a bit vague about that...

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