Since I moved to Japan 8 years ago, several things have continued to elude me in terms of my own cultural behaviors and successful integration. One of those things is parking. “Parking,” you say? Yes, parking.
It’s a seemingly innocuous thing, the way people choose to park, but in fact there’s something to be learned about culture and the complex factors associated with our invisible beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Edward T. Hall, a cultural anthropologist and one of the 20th century’s most important figures, devised a system by which we can discuss culture and the forces behind our beliefs while working with the US Foreign Service Institute in the 1950s. His work at the FSI later became the core of his first book “The Silent Language,” which I use as a primary text in my intercultural communication courses.
In that book, Hall offers a look at the many ways that human and our environment influence one another and how our culture is built largely on the complex systems of symbols that emerge out of communication. The most famous of Hall’s observations is about how space shapes communication, and in fact how space itself communicates. The idea, called proxemics, is most famously observed in the invisible rings that surround each of us…the boundaries known as intimate, personal, social, and public space. It’s common knowledge that “invading someone’s personal space” is taboo, but Hall was among the first to make the concept explicit.
In the case of parking, I suggest that it’s less space that’s speaking, but rather our cultural ideas about time…or chronemics as its been named. Let me explain…
Japanese culture, in contrast to American culture, is described as more long-view oriented. The Japanese, an ancient society, tend to take the long term view of life and famously plan well ahead in order to remain viable for generations, rather than years. Americans, on the other hand, tend to plan for the present, or the immediate future, embracing change more readily, but ignoring the potential long terms effects of their decisions. These are nuanced aspects of the two cultures, that require greater scrutiny, but for the purpose of this blog post, let’s stick with that framework.
In Japan, people back into parking spaces. It takes a great deal of time (from my American eyes) to execute the three point turn, and a bit of dexterity in sliding backwards into a parking space. Getting your car to back into a narrow set of lines, remaining parallel, is an art. It takes practice. To the Japanese, this practice is seen as preparation for one’s eventual departure. It’s an investment of time that makes life easier down the road. The American perspective on parking is quite different.
Slipping frontways into a parking space as quickly and effectively as possible, allows the American to handle their immediate business with more time to spare. It’s what’s on the American’s mind in the “here and now” that takes precedent and whatever the time constraints later, that’s a matter for future consideration. It reflects the value of the present over the future.
I try to embrace the practice of backing into parking spaces as a part of my smooth cultural integration in Japan, but I’m only partly successful. I’m not “wired” to think about time the way the Japanese are programmed, and so the whole thing becomes an all too conscious effort to “go with the flow.” It’s not that I’m embracing Japanese chronemics as much as it is embracing the way things are done. My behavior is only changed at the shallow end of the pool, and it’s highly doubtful (or perhaps even desirable) that I will ever change the deep end thinking that would be required to truly assimilate culturally. In this simple example, it’s possible to observe the concept of chronemics and the larger notion of cultural assimilation and intercultural communication.
In the United States, in a multicultural society, many outside the dominant culture (the mainstream) assimilate to the point of going along to get along, but never quite make the adjustment to the deep end of the pool thinking that I described earlier. There are certainly some things about American culture, as a very general concept, that seem to be broadly shared across cultural demographics, but understanding the complexity of American cultural negotiation is to embrace the idea that deeply held and largely invisible beliefs about time, space, gender, health, and many other core aspects of the human experience force us apart as much as the invisible agreement that “we’re all Americans” seems to hold us together. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you park the way you park.