Considering yourself better than others is ugly. This struck me recently when I saw one of my students behaving condescendingly to another student, whose English was not as good as his. It was the first time I had ever witnessed such an exchange between my students. Although they all invariably find themselves working with someone whose English is either a little better or a little worse than their own, they generally complete the activities without this becoming apparent, or if apparent, of no real importance. That is just how Japanese students generally are.
While watching the two involved in their rather icy exchange I thought to myself, ‘Who do you think you are? Yes, your English is good and you are rightly proud of it and want to show off a little, that’s natural for an 18-year-old (I sometimes still want to show off and I’m 56!). Even so, she’s a nice girl and there are no doubt many things she can do better than you. I’m sure she wouldn’t make you feel as awkward about them as you are making her feel now.
In general this male student is nice, clever, enthusiastic and I like him. He was just a little superior on this occasion and temporarily forgot that ‘better at English’ does not mean ‘better’.
As I said, I too am sometimes prone to the same kind of fantasies of greatness and I don’t think I am alone in this, certainly not in the western world. I often find it difficult to watch modern American movies because so many of the characters seem totally enamoured of themselves. They are cool and witty and have such clever put-downs ready to hand. I think life is indeed imitating art when Americans start to sound like they are in an episode of Friends.
Back in the real world, some black people swagger around threateningly like they were trying to impose themselves on the world. Many of them seem genuinely besotted with their own magnificent self-image. This isn’t just another case of me riding my hobby-horse into the sunset. Social scientists have found that blacks have the highest self-esteem among all the races, as well as the lowest IQs. Conversely, north-east Asians have the highest IQs with the lowest self-esteem. It is hard to know if being a bit thick prevents blacks from seeing their limitations as clearly as Japanese see theirs, or whether some other factor is involved in elevated self-esteem, like high levels of testosterone. The Japanese are often said to be very modest but I suspect they are just realistic whereas other races have an unrealistically flattering self-image.
Several months ago I watched some Youtube videos of people being bullied and then fighting back (I’m a big fan of revenge. I think locking criminals up as society’s revenge is quite reasonable; the fact that it also prevents further crime is just a bonus). On these videos, people whose appearance suggested they wouldn’t say boo to a goose turned out to have the courage of lions. You never can tell what people are like and since watching those videos, in my everyday life I have started watching people more closely for signs of ‘iron in the soul’. I still go from A to B wrapped up in my own world and thinking mainly of myself but I am now slightly more aware of of other people’s existence; that they are conscious in the same way I am and are probably having the same kinds of thoughts as me at this moment. I even sometimes envision a thought bubble around the people I meet and often you can tell that the contents of the bubble has nothing to do with where they are.
Anyway, realising you are not exceptional and are among people just like yourself is both salutary and comforting. After all, who wants to feel isolated, regardless of whether it is because you think yourself better or worse than others? It is worth dropping your self-obsession and looking at the strangers around you just to remind yourself that you are neither unusual nor alone.
Watching my two students talking brought home to me that the boy was making a mistake. Both he and she would have been happier if he could have seen his way to viewing her, not as some below par English language partner, but as the pleasant, clever, attractive girl she was. He was competing in non-competitive situation, something I also often make the mistake of doing.