Photo: TheCulinaryGeek / Flickr

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.

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.”

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