The Improbable Direction

by Maribel Alvarez

A illustration of Maribel Alvarez, a person with short black hair, glasses, light brown skin, lipstick, and earringsOne of the most important lessons I learned as a folklorist-in-training in graduate school came to me in a footnote: a quote on page 122, to be exact, of David Lipset’s 1980 biography of the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. This book was never assigned in a class. I picked up a used copy at Bookman’s one night. (Note: Graduate students are often compelled to do these types of supplemental readings to fill in the gaps of what their professors assume they already know!)

Bateson reminisced on the training he had received as a junior anthropologist in Cambridge in the 1920s. He remarked on two basic lessons for asking good questions:

  1. The question that leads should always lead in what you think is the improbable direction. If you think nobody in the neighborhood grows cucumbers, ask: Who grows cucumbers around here?
  1. Handle things concretely. Instead of asking vague questions about what meanings things have, derive meaning from actions. Or as Bateson put it, “You did not say, do you respect your parents? You say what happened yesterday when papa came home from work?”

These interviewing tips work! The result is richer, more nuanced, and more complex stories. For years I have delighted in teaching my students these valuable tips. Ironically (chuckle), I have forgotten to take my own advice about being a good cultural interviewer more than once.

But such forgetting makes for good teaching moments. At the start of my lecture on ethnographic methods, I often share the infamous “jasmine tea” story. After a generous dinner I attended at the home of a Chinese acquaintance, we were served tea after the meal. I naively asked, Is this jasmine tea? My host was deeply offended by my question. “Jasmine tea? Do you think I would serve my guests jasmine tea? No. This is a special tea of the emperor’s royal varieties, the most expensive and most special tea I brought back from China to serve only special guests!” Oops.

Fortunately, my host graciously forgave my cultural insensitivity and we ended the night in good fellowship. However, for years when she ran into my spouse in a casual setting, she would say, “Oh, no, Maribel said ‘jasmine tea’!”

How could I have asked the question differently? I could have asked the basic, open-ended question, What kind of tea is this? Or, per Bateson’s advice, I could have said:

“I know jasmine tea is sometimes served.” [I acknowledge that I am assuming only what I know].

“Do you ever serve other kinds of teas?” [What is improbable for me—that any other tea but jasmine would be served—turns out to be what reveals my host’s cultural meaningful practice. Yes, other teas are served, including this very special one for my special guest.]

Trial and error is part of a folklorist’s toolkit. And humility reminds us that we never fully grasp the meaning of anything all at once, or in all its layers.

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