Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

What is Normal? – Part 1: Getting Started

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


This is the first in a series on this topic. It contains observations I've made after the following experiences: living for 25 years in Australia and another 30 years in the US; working with and hosting people from other regions and countries; and making more than 350 domestic and international trips for both work and pleasure.


Ask anyone what the word normal means and it's very likely they'll understand it to be something like "according to formal or informal rules, usual, ordinary", while its opposite abnormal means "to deviate from the usual or normal". Being normal is often associated with being socially accepted while to be abnormal has negative connotations. This is not always fair; it might just mean different. As for me, I have never claimed to be normal and I've never aspired to be usual let alone ordinary. And, many years ago, I decided that it was easier and much more useful and interesting to be different than it was to be better. [Like normal, better is another of those relative words, better than what?]

What is often forgotten about normal is the fact that its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used. For most people their everyday interactions are with people in the same local area in the same local language using the same local customs. They are all operating in a normal fashion. However, 100 miles away, people from another community interact with people in their local area, in their local language, using their local customs, all of which might be quite different from those of the first group. Yet the second group is also behaving normally. As for me, in a normal week I speak by phone with and write via email and instant message to people from a number of countries, from Asia through the Americas to Western and Eastern Europe.

Well that might be interesting from an anthropological point of view, but why should the average (dare I say, normal) person care? As long as there have been humans on this planet, they have grouped together in small bands, and then larger ones, right up through states and nations. And this has resulted in the creation and evolution of language and customs. They have traded with their neighbors, intermarried with them, and gone to war with them. And quite often, they have had significant misunderstandings with each other, based on differences in religion or custom.

In today's highly interconnected world very few of us can avoid being exposed to the customs of other groups, some of which are radically different from our own. Unless we are intent on becoming isolationists the challenge is to try and understand things from their perspective, probably without having experienced it or anything like it ourselves. Our normal is not their normal, and suggesting they should behave like us is at best naïve or ignorant and at worst foolish.

We are Products of our Own Environments

While we certainly inherit some things genetically, I'm a great believer in people being shaped by their environment; the larger their environment the greater the number of influences on them. In my own case, I spent my first 16 years in a rural community of South Australia (SA), most of the time living 5–30 miles from a town of about 5,000 people. My parents had a 6th-grade education. I had no role models for higher education or any profession, no or limited access to television, and limited choices of radio stations. Once every few years we made a day trip to the state capital. The most exotic thing I did was to spend several weeks on an Aboriginal Mission (which is much like a Native American Reservation here in the US) when I was 15. My environment was quite small.

Despite its enormous size, Australia was a country in which most people got from Place A to Place B by driving, and if it couldn't be driven in a reasonable time people didn't go there. [This changed somewhat once airline deregulation happened just as it did in the US.] As a result, people didn't go far on vacations and their exposure even to people from neighboring states was very limited.

After WWII, Australia supported a series of large immigration waves, each of which had a significant and permanent impact on the nation. The first to come were the English and Scots, then the Greeks, Italians, and Yugoslavs, and they came in the tens of thousands. After that, the economic refugee "Boat People" from Vietnam arrived, followed years later by the Sikhs, and more recently by people from various parts of the Middle East. As many of these people worked as itinerant fruit pickers, they took seasonal work on my hometown's citrus, grape, and stone fruit properties. Over time, they stayed permanently and started social clubs, sporting teams, newspapers, and radio programs, and for the most part, they integrated into the local community.

From age 16 to 25, I lived in Adelaide, a city of about a million people that is the capital of the state of SA. While there I bought a car, traveled to several other states, took my first airplane ride, became politically aware, and started voting (which is compulsory in Australia; is that normal?) I also discovered music, theater, and computers. My environment got substantially bigger. [However, I realize now that I didn't take advantage of it nearly as much as I could have.]

At 25, I left Australia for a multi-year adventure abroad. At that time, I had visited a number of regions of my large home state (which is nearly 150% the size of France or Spain) and I'd visited small parts of a few other states. Then, over a 7-week period, I visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England. By the time I arrived in the US, my environment had become much larger, especially as I wasn't going home at the end of the trip. In fact, those seven weeks were just the beginning of the adventure.

Despite my extensive travels and interactions, I can still be surprised when it comes to normalcy. One such example occurred during my first visit to the state of Western Australia (WA) several years ago. [Each time I go back to Australia, I try to visit different bits of it to see what it was I had unknowingly left behind.] I was touring the southwest corner of that state when I came across a small town with a butcher shop. Right about then I had a yearning for some smoked sausage of the kind with which I'd grown up called mettwurst. Interestingly, the butcher knew exactly what I wanted, and asked me if I was from SA. I replied that I was, at which point he reminded me that the recipe for mettwurst came to Australia with the German immigrants in the 1840's, but they only settled in SA, so mettwurst was not normally available in other states. [Subsequently, I spent time discovering more about my own family background and state's history. As a result, I found that much of my knowledge about Australian customs really was specific to my home state or region.]

Another example involves books. I have worked with Nihon-jin (Japanese people) for more than 25 years. I've visited and travelled in Japan on numerous occasions, and I've hosted quite a few in my house, so I've come to learn quite a few things about their culture and customs. Being a book lover, I like to go to bookstores when I travel, and I do so in Japan. Most books written in Japanese have the front cover where we Westerners would say is the back cover, and vice versa, with the text going down the page in columns from right-to-left, and with pages being numbered from right-to-left. So when I see a stack of books on a table in a Japanese bookstore, I have this incredible urge to go and "turn them up the right way". I know they are already the right way up, but after all these years I still have not yet adjusted to that difference.

Getting in the "What is Normal?" Mindset

So what does normal mean to you? Without thinking too hard about them, answer the following questions:

  • On what date does summer begin?
  • If it is 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, ignoring any adjustment for Daylight Savings Time, what time is it in Paris, six 1-hour time zones to the east?
  • What date does 1/12/2009 represent?
  • Write the following value as a number: Three thousand four hundred point five.
  • How many lowercase letters are there?

Now let's go over each question and see how your answers compare with those from other readers of this blog.

On what date does summer begin? Here in the US summer begins with the Summer Solstice, on June 20th or 21st, when the sun is furthest north. For countries in the southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is on December 20th or 21st. However, in some places equinoxes and solstices are considered to be in the middle of the respective season or at least some weeks after that season's start, but never actually at their start. For example, in Australia, summer starts on December 1 and ends the last day of February.

It's 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, and Paris is six 1-hour time zones to the east. From where I'm sitting near Washington DC, I'd say it was 5 pm in Paris, but my friend Stéphane—who lives there—would probably say it was 17:00. [It has been many years since I've worn a watch. However, I do carry a pocket computer that has a clock. When I travel to a country that uses a 24-hour clock, I change my computer clock to use the local time display format just to "get with the program" and to experience a different kind of normal. This is also useful when I look at transportation schedules as they typically use the local time format.]

What date does 1/12/2009 represent? In the British Commonwealth (and numerous other) countries, dates are written "day/month/year", in which case, this date would be December 1, 2009. However, in the US it represents January 12. [I am reminded of two things regarding date format differences. I had a traveler coming to stay and she informed me by email that she'd be in my area around 5/6. She was from Australia, but had been touring the US for some months, so I didn't know if she meant May 6 or June 5. I had to ask; otherwise, I might have been preparing for her visit on the wrong day. The second has to do with the attack on the World Trade Center (is that spelling normal?), which took place on September 11, 2001. Here in the US, that date is referred to as 9/11; however, I was surprised to also see it written and hear it spoken the same way in Australia where it would normally be 11/9.]

I write the value "three thousand four hundred point five" as 3,400.5; but my German friend Astrid would write it as 3.400,5. In France, Stéphane would write 3 400,5 (with a non-breaking space as the thousands separator) and in Geneva, a French-speaking part of Switzerland, Daniela would write 3'400,5. What we native English speakers generally refer to as the decimal point is actually known to others as the decimal comma or decimal separator.

As to how many lowercase letters are there, being an English speaker, I'd say 26. However, my Russian friend Sonja would say 33 (using the post-revolution Cyrillic alphabet) and my Danish friend Keld would say 29 (the 26 English letters followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å, in that order). [Years ago, during a lecture I gave in Copenhagen, I said naïvely that the Danish alphabet had three extra letters (meaning the 26 English letters plus three more). A member of my audience raised his hand and politely informed me that his alphabet had exactly the right number of letters; there were no extra ones! That day, I learned a valuable lesson about normal.] On the other hand, my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet! (Which begs the question, "Is there such a thing as a crossword puzzle in Japanese?") She writes using Kanji ideographs from Chinese, and symbols from the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries. [You should have seen the stunned look on the face of the young sales person here in the US when during a stay with us, Misa signed a credit card slip using Kanji and the clerk had to check it against the "signature" on the back of her card! "That doesn't look like a real signature," he said.]

Having done that little exercise, let's go back to a statement I made earlier: "The meaning of normal depends on the context in which it is being used."

Computer Software and the Concept of Locales

In my initial blog post, I said that I was going to write about things outside my work, but bear with me while I get a bit closer to that subject. After all, my work is my life and my life is my work! [I promise not to be a complete computer nerd, however.]

You are reading this blog post using a web browser, and its controls and menus very likely are annotated in your native language, whatever that may be. How then does someone design and implement such a program so that it supports multiple languages and conventions? 25 years ago, I attended my first meeting of a committee that was producing a standard specification for the very popular C programming language. As some implementers of the resulting standard wanted ways to support different cultural conventions the committee invented a foundation stone—called a locale—for doing that. Simply stated, a locale is a named collection of local conventions of nationality, culture, and language.

Here are some examples of locales. A US locale supports the English alphabet, a 12-hour time format, a month/day/year date format, a comma thousands separator, and a decimal point, among other things. On the other hand, a France/French locale supports the French alphabet, a 24-hour time format, a day/month/year date format, a space thousands separator, and a decimal comma. Note the use of "France/French". That is necessary because former French colonies, which still speak French, might have conventions different to those used in France. Likewise for the languages of the other colonial powers, such as the Dutch, English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

In the two examples above the whole country uses the same set of conventions. However, that is not always the case. For example, Canada supports two official languages (English and French), Belgium supports two (Dutch and French), Finland supports two (Finnish and Swedish), and Switzerland supports four (French, German, Italian, and Romansh). And to make it interesting, some towns near one or more borders use one or more conventions borrowed from across those borders.

Implementers of computer programs determine which locales they will support and produce corresponding versions of their products. The larger topic of supporting customs and conventions in computer software is known as internationalization (or I18N for short, as there are 18 letters between the first and the last) and the application of I18N techniques to produce a particular flavor is known as localization (or L10N). As my involvement in information technology standards increased and globalization in business took off, the ideas of I18N and L10N dovetailed very nicely with my own interest in natural languages, customs, and travel.

Broadening Your Own Horizons

Not everyone has the opportunity, time, or budget to travel abroad, to work with or host foreigners, or to do any number of seemingly exotic things. And not everyone wants to. [That said, I've long maintained that by definition experiencing foreign travel must be positive. Either you have a good time, meet interesting people, and possibly even adopt some changes in your lifestyle as a result, or you have a bad experience that causes you to appreciate more what you have back in your own country and home. Either way, you will learn something about yourself and your own circumstances relative to the rest of the world.]

Here are some small ways to be pleasantly abnormal without expending much effort or expense:

  • Travel to the next town, county, or state just to have a look around and meet the locals
  • Read an article, book, magazine, or newspaper that it outside your ordinary fare; spend time browsing at your local library or bookstore
  • Talk to people who've traveled and asked them why they did and what they learned about themselves
  • Select a radio station at random; listen to music in a different language or from a different culture
  • Talk to visitors from other towns, states, and countries; talk to immigrants
  • Visit a museum or art gallery; go to a concert or see a play; try to sit through a ballet [I fell asleep during Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, Russia. You wouldn't believe how long that damned swan took to die!]
  • Look at alternate news sources [I get my daily world news in English from DW-TV (Deutsche Welle in Berlin, Germany) and I watch programs regularly from and about Japan, in English.]
  • The Internet truly can be your oyster, and if you don't have a computer, get free access to one at your local library
  • Look up in a dictionary new words you come across; improve your word power; do a crossword
  • Set out to learn something new and useful at least once a month

Now, add at least five of your own ideas to this list.


In future installments in this series I'll look at a number of different aspects of cultural differences. These will include writing systems, calendars and dates/times, numbers and counting systems, currency, measurement systems, forms of address/names, computer keyboards, electrical and phone plugs, driving, address formats, country and place names, surviving with chopsticks, and some cultural things such as which gestures might get you in trouble and which indicate to observers that you are dead!

I'll close this first part with a story about the first night I ate in the US after arriving in August 1979. I was seated in the restaurant at my hotel in suburban Washington DC and I'd ordered a salad and an entrée (which in the US is a main course; go figure!) The salad came, but being a good little Australian I waited for the main meal to arrive before I started my salad. After all, everyone knows that you eat your salad with your meal! Well I waited and I waited some more and finally I asked the waiter. I was politely told that he was ready to serve my main course just as soon as I finished my salad. Welcome to normal!