Home > Learning, Reflections > anthropologist


I studied anthropology in college.

For all I studied, I’m prone to forget what it means to be an anthropologist.

When I lived in Japan, I was keenly aware of how my students and colleagues monitored each other’s appearance, attire, and behavior. As a foreigner, I was exempt from being called “piggy” or mocked for not eating natto* with everyone else.

I was glad to be American. Back in America, we were way too concerned with our own lives to constantly worry about what others were doing unobtrusively with theirs. We Americans didn’t have to worry about social controls the way Japanese people did.


Earlier this week, my sister Madeline texted about some frustrating encounters she’d had while out walking with her four sons. One woman asked, “What were your thinking, having four boys without a driver’s license?”

Another woman virtually insisted on giving Madeline a ride. The woman didn’t have car seats, but she literally couldn’t conceive of anyone walking for pleasure. That shaped what she was and was not able to hear.

Madeline’s gotten a lot of attention like this. She’s been asked, many times, questions like, “How many dads do your boys have?” and, “Don’t you understand birth control?”

Because I’d so recently written about the grocery store sages who critique my shopping carts, I got to thinking about the patterns behind these exchanges. And, remembering how I felt about Japanese social controls, I was mortified by my prior delusions.

If you’re an American, please think of all the times you’ve been asked questions containing implicit judgments. When people have made disdainful statements that only resembled questions because of the intonation placed on the last word.

I’ve heard many of these, until recently understanding them as individual annoyances instead of mechanisms of social control.

Below is a sampling of some commonly used controlling statements, with (approximate) translations. It turns out social control isn’t only for checking pregnant women.

drink splash

  1. “It’s too soon to talk about that.” Translation: Your speech must be timed to my/our willingness to hear.
  2. “You’re too privileged to talk about that” or “Your privilege is showing.” Translation: I support the speech of people I identify as oppressed, whom I infantilize by turning into objects of my lionizing charity. You, The Oppressor, do not meet my/my perceived group’s criteria.
  3. “You bully. It hurts my feelings when you disagree with me.” Translation: It’s critical for social harmony that you only talk about things on which we agree.
  4. “We need to unify.” Translation: Your wrong position is preventing unity. Either shut up or adjust your position accordingly to become compliant. 
  5. “Did you say ‘less’? I believe you meant ‘fewer.'” Translation: Upgrade your grammar settings and then you’ll be worth hearing.
  6. “Are you really going to eat all of that?” Translation: Piggy.
  7. “You let your kids do that?!” Translation: If you were as good a parent as me, you’d know you’re wounding your kids for life.
  8. “At least she’s at peace.” Translation: Your grief is inconvenient to me. I don’t like being reminded the world can be an unbearably heartbreaking place.
  9. “It hurts me when you talk about your past abuse. Let’s talk about something else.” Translation: You’re really harshing my mellow, and you should know my current mellow is more important than your history.
  10. “Be grateful for your blessings.” Translation: Quit being such a Debbie Downer. It’s not okay to be not okay. Suck it up and keep rolling, the way almost everyone else does.

When I read Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class recently, I came to understand how U.S. politicians intentionally moved from utilizing overt to covert racism. The history is quite plain; the unconcealed quotes, unmistakable in intent.

I still didn’t see that this was part of a broader pattern: It’s not bad, or real, unless it’s blatant! Prohibited socially from saying the overt, bad thing, we Americans adapt. We conceal judgments under kind-sounding words, forming a mutual society of self-enforced policing, and yet call ourselves free.

Twelve years ago, I thought–based on overtly socially controlling behavior–that the Japanese were virtually imprisoned by social controls. Americans, on the other hand, were completely free!

Now, many, many years later, I see that there are many different ways to control, as there are many different ways to be imprisoned.

And I downright miss Japan, where they didn’t waste any time or energy trying to conceal their shared prison bars.

What does it mean to be an anthropologist?

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner said it best:

We are talking about the schools’ cultivating in the young that most “subversive” intellectual instrument: the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

We need hardly say that achieving such a perspective is extremely difficult, requiring, among other things, considerable courage. We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one’s tribe. For example, it is generally assumed that people of other tribes have been victimized by indoctrination from which our tribe has remained free. Our own outlook seems “natural” to us, and we wonder that other man can perversely persist in believing nonsense. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that, for most people, the acceptance of a particular doctrine is largely attributable to the accident of birth.

* Natto is fermented soybeans. Better to be teased for eating it than actually eat it!

  1. August 18, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Interesting. I don’t think I would like someone teasing me , but at least you know where you stand. Now, I just have to say, “bless your heart!”

    • August 18, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      I wouldn’t like being teased directly, but it’s not really better being teased indirectly. One way makes it easy to pretend you’re in the limelight; the other makes you more aware of, well, reality.

      One of my girlfriends recently moved back to the South. I messaged her and said that, based on our prior conversations, I interpreted “bless your heart” as, “you haven’t got two bits of sense to rub together!” She said I needn’t interpret it that way, and that it could be meant as a genuine show of sympathy.

      Any which way, I feel OK. I’m now better read politically than 99.9% of my friends/acquaintances, to the point where I feel comfortable posting just about anything I post in reflection, even as I commit to reading ever more (in breaks between loving my boys like mad, so they can carry the feeling of that love with them no matter what the future holds). 🙂

      • August 18, 2017 at 4:17 pm

        I am sorry you had to check the reference. I meant it as a joke. I love country music and I hear that expression frequently.
        It can be insulting and it can be serious expression of love and well wishing.
        The concept of criticising someone based on weather or not they ate fermented beans was what inspired me.
        This dialogue is why I haven’t been posting or reading this summer. I have been too overwhelmed to try to be clear in words.😉
        I don’t think I even read anything political in your post, it’s all human nature and, yes, I meant the comment in connection with understanding human nature from different cultures = anthropology.
        In my community the term is a joke.
        I do love to read your writing because I learn a lot from it. I am sorry I offended you.
        Again, this is why I took the summer off

        • August 18, 2017 at 4:24 pm

          I took care to ensure I was light-hearted in my reply! I think it’s natural to ask questions to try and ascertain where someone’s coming from, and I’m grateful for the context you’ve provided. I’m glad you commented!

          (Also, the natto-teasing could be so heinous! But, really, it was beyond me how folks could see, smell, and taste it without feeling like running to the restroom. I tried to be culturally sensitive, but the smell and texture alone … *shudder*)

          • August 18, 2017 at 4:29 pm

            I will take your word for it and leave natto as something I have heard of, but never tried.
            As for the misunderstanding – if everyone in the world took your approach, the world would be so beautiful.

  2. August 19, 2017 at 12:03 am

    Here’s one to add to your list: “You’re very direct.” (Translation: You’re rude and tactless and you have opinions I don’t like.) I’d lived here (in the Pacific Northwest) for TWO YEARS before it dawned on me that this was not a compliment. People would say that to me, and I’d smile and think they were impressed by my refreshing openness and honesty. Hah! I guess if I lived in the south they’d be blessing my heart.

    That’s just one of many hard lessons I’ve had to learn here. It’s so strange … I had such a strong expectation of “America the Free”. It’s lovely to be free of anxiety – the risk of being assaulted or robbed is minimal, the cops are polite and don’t expect bribes, I can walk pretty much anywhere any time of day or night. But the crushing force of public expectation, the pressure to conform in speech and thought – it’s like a boa constrictor around the soul.

    I’ve learned that I can’t say things like this to most Americans – at any rate, the conservatives who make up the majority of the Hubbit’s friends and family. He’s traveled all over the world, including with me to South Africa, so back in the day when I thought people were interested in my opinions he would confirm that I was right – people here are NOT free; they may not be at risk of prison for offending the government, but they can and will be sued for causing inconvenience, and ostracized for failing to fit in.

  3. August 19, 2017 at 12:04 am


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