Saturday, 4 December 2010

Normal no more?

What is the most difficult word in the world? I have seen a number of suggestions including “ilunga” (a term in a language in Congo for various stages of forgiveness for a person who has done something wrong) or the Welsh “hiraeth” (for a specific form of homesickness). In German there is “Geisterfahrer” (literally “ghost driver”, referring to a driver who accidentally drives the wrong way on a motorway, thus endangering himself and everybody else), and the English language could also offer a number of concepts, for example “poppy day” or “party wall surveyor” (don't ask!).
In all of these cases, if you want to express the meaning of these terms in another language, you have to really make a meal of it and give some sort of explanation of the cultural background. They are concepts which cannot generally be translated by a single word, or even a short phrase.

But my personal favourite “hardest word” is the word “normal”. It beats all the other “difficult words” hands down. Concepts such as ilunga, hiraeth, Geisterfahrer and poppy day (and to some extent party wall surveyor) are understood by just about everyone in the appropriate cultural and linguistic community. But what does “normal” mean? Often, there is no consensus about this even in a single family.

Of course we can translate the shell.
The German word “normal” is rendered in English (surprise, surprise!) by the word “normal”. But how much does that help us? If somebody says to you “Why can't you just be normal?”, what do they really mean? Probably simply “Why can't you be like me?”.

There have been various attempts to define what is normal:
“Children should be seen and not heard.”
“Speak when you are spoken to.”
“Don't do as I do, do as I say.”
“Boys don't cry.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
“Keep your hands on the dinner table” (or in other cultures: “Keep your hands off the table unless you are using them to hold a knife, fork or spoon”).

All of these are cultural. But there are personal differences, too. Is it normal to talk a lot and fill every silence with words, or is it more normal to be quiet? Is it normal to arrive much too early for every meeting, or to arrive at the last minute and sometimes be late because you have miscalculated the time needed to get there? Is it normal to dress formally, or is it more normal to dress casually, even in frayed jeans? Is it normal to work in a 9 to 5 office job, or to work through the night in a home office?

There is an interesting example in the New Testament that illustrates what “normal” behaviour can mean to different people. Paul and Barnabas wanted to go on a trip to visit churches and to bring the message of Jesus to new territories. The crunch came when they couldn't agree on the companion to take with them.
Barnabas was a very sociable and open sort of person, and he wanted to take John Mark. Paul objected that John Mark had left them on a previous trip and was therefore not reliable enough for such a task. Paul and Barnabas had such strong feelings in the matter that they got into a terrific argument and were unable to work together for the time being (although they made friends again later). The story can be found at the end of Acts chapter 15.
What is normal here? Is it normal to judge people on their previous performance and select them on the basis of their past record? Or is it normal to give people a second chance after they have failed to perform as expected on a first task? Who was right and normal, Paul or Barnabas?
My answer - both of them, or neither of them. They were simply different personalities with different expectations of what normal behaviour means.

This is more than just a question of linguistic concepts. Realising that “normal” is not the same as “normal” can help us in many clashes of personality. Whether in a marriage, or in any other clash between colleagues, acquaintances or even friends. My “normal” is not your “normal”. Knowing that, I can then learn to appreciate your individuality.

So am I normal?


  1. Hi Victor, I came across your blog by a comment you left on Martin's "False Friends". I think I am going to follow your blog regularly from now on, I really like the way you write and how you make the reader (in this case, me!) think. Thank you!

  2. Hi Librarian, thanks for the encouraging feedback. I enjoy Martin's blog, too - which is why I include it in the links on the right of the page.

  3. Knowing the meaning behind the term party wall surveyor is just a Google away but in this case, defining the word "normal" varies from one person to another since what's "normal" to you, might not be "normal" for another person.