Sunday, May 25, 2008

Paper, scissors, agreement

This last Friday I gave one of my junior 2 classes the last ten minutes or so free. We had finished the unit, and both they and I were lethargic on that sultry Friday afternoon. So, whilst, I made notes in my class log and hobbled through Wolfgang Smith's brief primer on quantum mathematics in The Quantum Enigma, my students did what they did. A chief joy of this class is a game they call "Cuff the Guava". This is basically a gang-bang style bout of the game "paper, scissors, stone".

A word now about this innocuous game, PSS. In my culture, it is utterly innocuous, a sort of whimsical means of coming to a decision between two or more people, and usually only two or three. Not so in Taiwan. Here, PSS has taken on truly paradigmatic proportions. It seems to be THE means of small-group decision-making, and not just among children, but at pretty much every age-level. Nor is it merely a sometime way of making decisions; it is the unquestioned default method for striking a decision. It is so ingrained in the Taiwanese to sift people and options via PSS, that I have seen nearly a dozen students use it at lightning-speed to whittle down to contenders and then one final scapegoat (or last-piece-of-pie eater, as the case may be). This all came to mind with vivid clarity as I observed "Cuff the Guava".

The game is played, apparently, only in this one class, by about a half-dozen of the boys. They stand in a circle and toss the PSS gauntlet in rapid succession, one person stepping out without objection or pause if he defeats anyone else. The last person to be defeated is then cuffed: all the other guys rather savagely give him noogie after noogie. While I was watching this, I saw two girls playing a different game, apparently called, "0, 5, 10, 15, 20". For this game (I'll call it 0-2-0), both people make fists and then throw out either 0, 5, or 10 fingers, any combination of which will total 0, 5, 10, 15, or 20. On each round one player must call out any of those four values, and if that number of fingers comes out, she wins. (Winning usually means you can slap the other person's hand, or, more benignly, switch to the other person.) But how to establish who will guess first? Why, by no other means than good ol' PSS.

That's right: they play one hand game to decide how to play another hand game, the latter which could very well be the means by which they make some decisions at hand. Wheels within wheels, hands within hands.

As I watched all this (and got my hand smacked in my one bout of 0-2-0), I reflected on how different things are among small groups in the USA when making a decision. (And I should emphasize that I reflected on the difference, as I have been here long enough to learn to catch myself from simply saying something is so different, or more unique, or more outrageous, than at home, when the fact is, the exceptional character of something observed is usually a mental lapse: much the same happens in one's own home culture, but we take it for granted, until it is "exotified" in a foreign culture.) Upon reflection, I did feel there is a key difference at work. In my American culture, I believe small-group decision-making is much more verbal. In Taiwanese culture, by contrast, the arbitration is habitually non-verbal and kinesthetic. In my culture, decisions are events for personalities to mingle, or clash, in a, sometimes pyrotechnic, display of verbal nuance. In Taiwanese culture, by contrast, little games have become second nature perhaps precisely in order to minimize direct verbal impacts.

Why might this be so? I believe it was in Keith Devlin's Goodbye, Descartes that I recently read him saying England and Singapore's manners are more refined and central in dialogue, versus American and Australian manners being more rough and tumble, on account of the latter two places are broad, open countries, while the former two are small, self-contained island-cultures. As I read it, island-cultures have to cultivate better group-manners, since there is, almost literally, nowhere to escape from conflict, whereas larger countries allow for gruffer, more individualistic behavior, seeing as one individual can just up and move far away from the other individual source of complaint or trouble. So it is in Taiwan and America, respectively. In small, enclosed, densely populated cultures, like Taiwan's, there simply need to be automatic mechanisms for resolving social conflict, even in trivial matters, lest the pressure builds up like corn in a heated pot. In large, sparsely populated areas, by contrast, individualistic mechanisms for conflict resolution are permissible, not only because actual conflict can be diffused over the large geographical "option-space", but also because, in a land where each person can, ideally, at least, stake his own claim on his own plot of land, verbal skill is a way for individuals to stand out, to shine. In the USA, what often happens is that a difficult decision becomes a bickering match, fought over semantic nuances. "You misunderstood me; That's not what I meant; You never said that till now; I don't remember us agreeing to that; etc." You never see that sort of haggling in small-groups here. Everything stands or falls by the law of the flashing hands, if you will. It goes without saying that this faceless, hand-full method of conflict resolution elides the whole issue of personal blame or fault, since, in a verbal match, each person is accountable (and commendable) for his own words, whereas in a sub-verbal match, no one is to blame, since the hands flash in a basically natural, random way. (We do the same in the USA with coin tosses, but even that can become a verbal feud if someone does not flip the coin right or if it is debated who should be heads or tails in the first place, or if the coin should land on the floor or be caught and slapped on the back of the hand, etc., etc. The old "on three or after three?" problem.)

It strikes me as more than a bit odd that rational decisions (e.g., which road should we take, which item should we order, which movie should we rent, whose head should we crack, etc.) are decided by a completely non-rational, stochastic method. But that is a post for another time.

I mention all this because as soon as I linked the feral ones of "Cuff the Guava" and the tame ones of 0-2-0, I saw a fine possibility for a doctoral thesis in anthropology. "Small-Group Decision Methods in Taiwan", or some such.

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