Default assumptions about sesame seeds

In a recent post I talked about how the same category (“tea,” for example) can have different default assumptions for different people. This is actually a very big deal, one that people have lost their lives over. For such a heated topic it receives relatively little attention in semantics.

Photo: TheCulinaryGeek / Flickr

Photo: TheCulinaryGeek / Flickr

These default assumptions matter because they’re an important part of the way we use categories. I could walk into a North Carolina barbecue restaurant and say, “I’m feeling hot and I like sugary beverages and the flavor of tannin. Please bring me something that satisfies those desires!” But I know that most Carolina barbecue joints sell something called “tea” that’s within my parameters, so I can just say one syllable, “tea,” and have more time for small talk. I may well have an image of “tea” in my mind, sight and taste, ahead of time.

My default assumptions when I order “tea” in North Carolina include the tea being ice cold, and there’s a fair amount riding on that assumption. Hot tea is not very satisfying when you’re looking for iced tea. This is part of the cultural background shared by most people in North Carolina, and throughout the South.

A big part of the reason these assumptions are so strong is that the experience is so consistent. If you order “tea” a hundred times in North Carolina you’ll get iced tea at least ninety-nine times. This is the way humans interact with the world: we create “schemas” for categories and update them based on our experience.

When that consistency of experience is lacking, we learn to discard our assumptions – or not to form them at all. When I was a kid I ordered a “burger” and was surprised to find it came with pickles and onions. I learned to ask for a “plain burger” until I grew to appreciate pickles and onions. My son has similarly learned that while he can reliably assume his burger will come with a “bun,” he can’t assume the bun won’t have sesame seeds baked onto it.

The greatest potential for misunderstanding is when communities with different default assumptions come into contact. My friend Lillian Robinson observed that when she ordered “tea” on airplanes, some flight attendants would ask, “Hot tea?” – and those flight attendants all seemed to have Southern accents. These flight attendants – Southerners in an environment where not everyone is a Southerner – recognized the potential for confusion and customer dissatisfaction.

Some people call these default assumptions “prototypes.” There seems to be some debate about this, so for now I’ll just stick to “default assumptions.”

Tea and prototypes

I once surprised a friend by ordering tea in a pizza parlor. She did not expect anyone to drink hot tea with pizza. Someone ordering that in Germany where she grew up, or Philadelphia where she lived, would be surprising. But it would be just as surprising in my hometown of New York. I asked for “tea” as an experiment.

Photo: rob_rob2001 / Flickr

Photo: rob_rob2001 / Flickr


As I predicted, the waitress was not surprised by my order, and brought a large glass of iced tea. I then conducted the second part of my experiment by tasting the tea. It was unsweetened. This was because we were not in New York or Philadelphia, but in Oxford, Mississippi.

When I ordered “tea” in Greenville, North Carolina, where I lived at the time, I always got “sweet tea”: tea that was supersaturated with sugar and then chilled and served over ice, but I had heard that in some parts of the South you got unsweetened iced tea. Here in Queens if you order “tea” at a restaurant that caters to the Indian or Nepalese populations, it will probably come with milk.

This is a difference in the sense of the word “tea,” but unlike previous semantic differences I’ve discussed, it is not a difference in the extent of the word. If you served me or any other Northerner a glass of iced tea or sweet tea and asked, “Is this tea?” most of us would say yes. If you served a Southerner a cup of hot tea, they would agree that it’s tea.

Of course, as Lynne Murphy has observed (PDF), some people argue about edge cases like rooibos or peppermint tea, but I think most of them would agree that iced tea, sweet tea and hot tea (with or without milk) are all definitely tea. The difference is not at the edges of the category, but in the center.

This is what George Lakoff refers to as a prototype effect. Iced tea is consumed much more frequently than hot tea in the South, so it has become the default “tea.” Sweet tea is consumed more frequently in North Carolina, so it’s the default there.

I’ll get into the differences between defaults, prototypes, stereotypes, radial categories, gradient effects and salient exemplars in future posts, but the main points I wanted to make here are that not all subcategories within a category are perceived equally, and that different people can have different expectations for a category. And to talk about this cool variation in the use of the word “tea.”