This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells the winding story of the triumph and folly of forever trying to better yourself. This letter is from the chapter on "Dealing with Others".
Hi Charlotte, so my stay in Japan1 is nearing to a close, and I think this has been one of the happiest periods of my life. I'm struggling to figure out why, though. Is there something more mindful and intelligent about the Japanese culture that sets me completely at ease? Is it because I'm running a high after leaving that crappy job at Google? Or is it because I've spent the whole summer focusing on cultivating contextual intelligence2?
I'm starting to think it's the last thing. I discovered that every time I've gotten out of some funk or some depression, it's because I had realized something about my context that would have been obvious to an outsider. For example, about a week into my trip here, I remember being in a funk, lying face down on my bed, with one arm over the edge, staring at the veins bulging around my hand. The old Phil would have lingered in this kind of state for weeks, confused by his languishing. The new Phil, the one focused on contextual intelligence, asks himself, "What's the context?" Let's see, I'm 23 years old, I'm in Japan, I'm by myself. Ah-hah, I'm probably just feeling lonely. And so I got up out of the bed (at 4 p.m. no less), and started Googling for social groups in Tokyo. Looking back now, that conclusion seems so obvious, but you'd be surprised how often I completely miss what my emotions are really telling me.
One of the groups I found is called HapA Japan (HapA is slang for "half-Asian"). The club is for expatriates and locals who are half-Asian and half-something else. This seemed like a perfect fit for me,3 so I went to one of their meetings. What I discovered was really interesting. I found them to be one of the most concentrated sets of beautiful people I've ever seen. Everybody looked like they were from The Matrix (which had a diverse cast that included half-breeds like Keanu Reeves). All of them were well-educated and well-traveled, and even though I didn't speak much Japanese, I got along really well with them. So I went to their various picnics and happy hours throughout my trip, which turned out to be just the right amount of socializing I needed, just enough to keep me free from want and away from my brooding morning introspections.
In Japan, they have these things called "izakayas," which are like something in-between a bar and a restaurant. Usually a group of friends or co-workers will gather there, take off their shoes, sit on tatami mats around a low, rectangular table, and order rounds of tapas-like food along with their drinks. Izakayas pretty much serve the same purpose as the local bar does for employees after work in the US, except it's a both more formal and intimate, which seem like a contradiction, but somehow the Japanese have figured that one out.
A few nights ago, the HapA Japan folks went to one of the classier izakayas, one with tall, dark wooden walls and plush velvety floors, where I found myself chatting with a very attractive half-Polish, half-Japanese girl. We asked each other about our backgrounds, and she said her parents worked at the United Nations. This immediately excited me, as my mind filled with a million related conversation topics. I normally get excited talking to UN kids, because if they're anything like the ones we know from Stanford, then they usually have interesting stories about their strange, nomadic and stateless world.
I was about to make this connection and launch into a reverie with this girl, but then I thought again about my quest for contextual intelligence. I asked myself, "What's the context?" This took me out of the moment, making me realize, "Look, Phil, you're a boy, she's a girl, you're roughly the same age, with similar looks, and so this isn't really the time for an academic discussion." I then calmed down and averted jumping into a giddy intellectual conversation about her niche social class.
We then talked with each other for the whole night, sharing a laugh at this one guy who got super-hammered and started eating noodles with his hands. I don't know if we were laughing more at him or at the awkward suffering that Japanese culture required everyone to go through in order to tolerate him. Either way, we all had a great time and I may have something new with this girl. We exchanged phone numbers later that evening, so who knows where it'll lead.
Time and time again, contextual intelligence has grounded me here. I feel more socially confident now. I read some stat awhile back saying that only 30% of the communication in a conversation is based on the actual words exchanged. The rest is other things, like body language, tone, setting, etc.—i.e. context. So who knows, this may be the missing puzzle piece I've been searching for all these years.4
1 Buoyed from some extra money I saved from working two months at Google, I took a two-month trip to Japan, living on the cheap.
2 I read an article before I came to Japan about the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. The theory described how there's three core dimensions of intelligence: analytical (like doing math), creative (coming up with ideas), and contextual (learning to adapt to your surroundings). At the time it struck me that my lack in the third dimension, contextual intelligence, most easily explained all of my neuroses and depressions. I still think I was right in identifying this weakness, and I believe it did explain much of the problems I had socializing and being happy.
3 My dad was born in India, and my mom the Philippines. It's rare to find people who have a similar mix of ethnicities.
4 This method endured for about three months, which was at the time longer than most things I had tried in self-improvement. However, the process of asking myself all the time, "What's the context?" did not, as I had hoped, make a lasting improvement on my contextual intelligence. Once the mantra stopped, so did my self-awareness. It wasn't until I got into meditation six years later did I find a continuous and lasting improvement to this intelligence dimension.