At lunchtime a few days ago, my fiancée and I relaxed and stared out over the balcony as we shared a VLT sandwich. As she went to take her next bite, I saw something sticking out of the sandwich, something I didn't recognise. It looked whitish but had a light green hue, so in my mind the only thing it could have been was the leafy component or the sandwich.
'What's that white thing sticking out?’ I asked. ‘Is that lettuce?'
She looked up from the sandwich and giggled. 'What did you just say?'
'The white thing sticking out,' I said, pointing at the midsection of the sandwich.
She shook her head, giggling all the while. 'No, after that?'
Her giggle gave way to an outburst of laughter.
It is almost always a pleasure to hear her laugh, especially when I'm the source (or object) of the comic relief. Still, when I’m not sure what I’ve done to make her laugh, I have to inquire, naturally.
She took her sweet time, and after stopping to catch her breath, she answered. It turns out I pronounced 'lettuce' wrong. I pronounced it the way I'd always done all my life, the way the word is spelt – let-e-use. This pronunciation, I now know, is wrong. The right pronunciation sounds like let-is or let-uhse, depending on whether you conform to British or American pronunciation. Of course, I'm neither British nor American.
I grew up in Nigeria, and while it's a commonwealth state and a former British colony, our spoken English is often characterised by pronouncing words the way they're spelt. The Nigerian language landscape is heterogeneous, such that there are hundreds of spoken languages. English is the official language – because…imperialism – but each citizen has a native, non-English language, which differs based on heritage, tribe and region in the country. Mine is Yoruba.
I've spoken English all my life. I think in English, I dream in English, but because I'm not from one of a handful of countries classed as native English speaking, my first language on paper is not technically English, even though it is in reality.
For the most part, I conform to the dictionary pronunciation of words in my vocabulary so I speak as properly as I can, but some words (like lettuce) slip through the cracks. One reason for this is, like most other people, there are many words in my vocabulary that I've heard but never seen written, and conversely, many words I've read but never come across in spoken form. And even for words so common that I've both read and heard, the phonetic components hardly co-travel, because it hardly ever registers on the ear when you hear a slightly different pronunciation of a word you've known your whole life. Such nuances in pronunciation are easily attributable to accentual or stylistic differences.
This is particularly salient when you come to the English language from another, or when you take up a language that’s different from your non-native language. You’re likely to speak English (or the non-native language) with the rules of your first language, and you’re likely to interpret spoken words similarly. The result is that you sound slightly different and it gives you away as a foreign or non-native speaker. There's a word for this different way of speaking; it's called an accent.
An accent is simply what happens when we speak one language with the phonetic and grammatical rules of another. When native French speakers roll their Rs between syllables while speaking English, when native Italian speakers stress their As at the end of words while speaking English, when native Arabic speakers stress the hard consonants in the back of the throat while speaking English, it's because these respective sounds are prominent in French, Italian and Arabic, even though they're nowhere near as prominent in English.
I don't know when in my life I decided on my pronunciation of lettuce, and I wonder how many times I've mispronounced it publicly without being corrected. A more sobering thought I’ve pondered is what other words I've been mispronouncing, and this thought has been prominent on my mind this week. Furthermore, it has made me realise just how idiosyncratic the English language is.
For the past few weeks, I've engaged in email correspondence with an old friend, a former PhD colleague I reconnected with recently. One of the many things we've talked about is the etymology and pronunciation of our names. His surname is Rough, and I confessed to him that many years ago I read it in my mind as Roh when I first saw it on paper. I don't know why, but I just imagined a Scottish surname spelt Rough would be pronounced as Roh rather than the typical pronunciation of the word, which would be Rohf.
This got me thinking about other similar words on paper and the pronunciation rules in English. Consider the following train of thought…
Rough is pronounced rohf. If we were to replace the R with a C, we'll get the word ‘cough’, which is pronounced kawf. This is sort of similar to rohf, so it could easily lull one into a false sense of security.
If we were to replace the R or C with a D, we get the word ‘dough’, which isn't pronounced dohf or dawf. Instead, it’s pronounced doh (like roh, the way I thought my friend's surname would be pronounced).
What if we were to replace the D with two letters, PL? We get the word ‘plough’, which is neither pronounced plohf or ploh. Instead, it’s pronounced plou.
It doesn't end there. We could replace the two letter PL with three, THR, and we'll get the word ‘through’ which is neither throhf, throh, nor throu. Instead, it’s pronounced throo.
There are many more examples with the -ough suffix alone, and for each class of pronunciation, you can find multiple words that fit. Think ‘bough’, ‘lough’, ‘tough’, ‘trough’, ‘though’.
Imagine picking up English as a second or third language and having to deal with the above, or worse, learning to pronounce ‘yacht’ after reading it on paper. In case you were wondering, 'yacht' is pronounced yot. English is idiosyncratic.
This paints a picture of a language with rules and exceptions, except the exceptions seem as prominent as the rules. It's a messy landscape, much like life, one where we are confined to our experiences and have no clue about others. Much like I had no idea I'd been mispronouncing something as commonplace as lettuce my whole life, and much like my fiancée had no idea that there are alternative pronunciations of the word, so too there are uncountable cases where we're unaware of other people's experiences, and just as many cases where others are unaware of ours.
In other words, there's so much we don't know. In some cases we're aware of the limits of our knowledge; we know there are things we don't know. These are called known unknowns in a popularised form of the Johari window, a term coined by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in the 50s. The concept was thrust into public discourse in 2002 when the (then) American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld referred to it in a press conference.
'…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.' – Donald Rumsfeld
This concept is often visualised as four quadrants, and each component lies at the intersection of awareness and understanding. Known knowns are things we're aware of and understand. Known unknowns are things we're aware of but don't understand. Unknown knowns are things we're not aware of but yet understand. Unknown unknowns are things we're neither aware of nor understand.
These categories are fluid and capricious. In other words, they change and morph, so that the boundaries shift with time. Furthermore, the act of self-reflection can prompt us to redraw the lines, thus redefining the categories further. For instance, known unknowns often masquerade as known knowns. This is to say there are things we're aware of and we think we understand (known knowns), but in reality, our understanding is nowhere near as comprehensive as we think. It takes a difficult act of self-reflection, or failing that, external intervention, to realise that we don't understand the thing, thus situating it in the known unknowns category. The distance that a false, masquerading known known needs to travel to arrive at the known unknown category has been extensively studied in psychology; it is called the illusion of explanatory depth. This is the idea that we exaggerate our levels of understanding of a lot of things, and we often don't realise it.
Consider something as ubiquitous as zippers. We have them in jeans, bags, shoes, and a host of other everyday items, but have you ever stopped to contemplate the mechanics and working principles that drive them? How do they work really? What is the thing, the bit of design, the architecture that turns tiny bits of interlocking metal or plastic into clamps capable of holding fabrics, leather and rubber together?
Now you've had some time to contemplate the mechanics, and either you've realised that you don't really know how they work and accepted your below-average knowledge of zippers, or you've smiled all the while, safe in the knowledge that you know a lot more than most people about zippers. Most people will probably fall in the former category, but if you ask most people to rate their knowledge of zippers before pointing out the intricacies, they're likely to rate their knowledge as well above average. In other words, knowledge of zippers would be rated as a known known when it really is a known unknown. This is the illusion of explanatory depth, and it only comes to the fore when said person is tasked with explaining it, and subsequently fails. Only then, does it shift firmly into the category it belongs.
There's a more extreme phenomenon, one that’s even more pronounced than the illusion of explanatory depth. Rather than known unknowns masquerading as known knowns, unknown unknowns masquerade as known knowns. Rather than the individual mildly overstating their understanding of something they're aware of, they confidently exaggerate their competence in something for which they not only lack understanding but also are grossly (and often blissfully) unaware. This phenomenon has also been named and studied extensively in psychology; it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
As with many psychological phenomena, those afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger effect are often the last to realise it. Nothing exemplifies this more than the meme adaptation of the famous quote from Flight Club, that the first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don't know you're a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.
This is most unfortunate, which is why this last category – the things we don't know, but we don't know that we don't know – deserves special consideration. These are the unknown unknowns. If we're to ever stand a chance of even a semblance of cognisance in this area, we need to leverage what I'd like to call serendipitous discovery, and that's the crux of this post.
Merrian-Webster defines serendipity as ‘the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for’. Serendipitous discovery then, may sound tautologous because the discovery (of a welcomed but not searched for thing) is inherent in the definition. Maybe it is, but I'm willing to transgress grammatically in order to stress the point that this discovery is not only important, but crucial in our appreciation of life and art.
The phenomenon of unknown unknowns, or blind spots in colloquial terms, is pronounced because we’re unaware of just how our worldview is shaped by things we don't realise. For instance the languages we speak greatly influence the way we think and how we see the world. Lera Boroditsky, author of 7,000 Universes: How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think, has studied this phenomenon extensively. In her published articles and popular TED talk, she shares how our visual representation of time (amongst other things) varies based on the language we speak.
Consider five images of the same person, aged through time, so that the youngest image is of said person as a child and the oldest image is of the person post-retirement. If these five images are presented to groups of people who are told to arrange them in sequence, there’ll be a few different results. Native English speakers are likely to arrange the photos from left to right with the youngest image on the left and the oldest one on the right. This is largely due to the left-right sequence of written English; English is read and written from left to right, and you’re doing it instinctively right now. Native Hebrew and Arabic speakers, on the other hand, are likely to arrange the images in reverse order to the English speakers. This is because, unlike English, Hebrew and Arabic are right-to-left languages, so the speakers of these languages are likely to place the youngest image on the right and the oldest one on the left.
It gets even more interesting. There’s an aboriginal group of people in Australia called the Kuuk Thaayorre, for whom their language holds no words for left or right. For them, everything is relative to one’s position in space. They think and speak in absolute terms using a form of the cardinal system i.e. North, South, East or West. In other words, they’re unable to say something as trivial to English speakers as ‘there’s a glass cup to your left’ or ‘there’s a bruise on your right arm’. It’ll have to be something like ‘there’s a glass cup to the South-South-East of you’ or ‘there’s a bruise on your North-West arm’, depending of course on the direction the person is facing. For this group then, the way they’ll arrange the five images would depend on the direction the individual is facing. They may arrange the images from left to right, or right to left, or back to front, or front to back, because to them, time is locked on the landscape, from East to West. So, if an individual from this group is facing South, they’ll organise the images from left to right (youngest to oldest), and the reverse is true if the individual is facing North. If the individual is facing East, then the images would be organised towards the body, and again, reversed if they’re facing West.
Similarly, some languages are gendered while others aren’t. In gendered languages, each noun (including every inanimate object) is assigned a gender, often masculine or feminine. Some gendered languages flip the gender of the same entity, so that an object like (say) the sun is masculine in Spanish but feminine in German. Studies show that the way German and Spanish speakers describe the same object differs. A bridge is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish, so German speakers are more likely to use stereotypically feminine words like beautiful or elegant when describing photos of a bridge, compared to stereotypically masculine words like strong and long used by Spanish speakers to describe the same bridge.
This makes me think about all the art I'm missing out on just because I don't understand the language. All the Spanish novels, German poetry, Greek music and so on that will no doubt enable me to glean insights into whole new worlds that are closed off to me. This thought lends credence, in my mind, to the old expression that a second language is like a second soul. Perhaps we could even extend the metaphor and say that a third language is like a third eye.
Our interpretation of the world extends beyond our native and learned languages because there are multiple forces at play that actively design the social landscape as we know it, to keep us in bubbles. This has the (dare I say) unfortunate effect of limiting serendipity.
For instance, several tech platforms pride themselves on serving us what we like, and some even go so far as to suggest that they know us better than we know ourselves. Whether or not they're accurate in their bold assertions, we have to concede that it's an unsettling thought. Except, we don't, because this practice is dressed up in a lovely sounding euphemism that we've not only come to know and love, but we also crave and accept; it's called personalisation.
We cede control in exchange for not having to think or choose. Why decide on the next thing to listen to or watch when an algorithm can do it for you? I feel the need to say that this has some value, after all, we've evolved to seek out cognitive shortcuts to lessen the unending and overwhelming amounts of stimuli that are constantly coming at us in our newfound, fast-paced environments. In this vein, it's a welcome development to not have to task your brain on such trivial things as the next movie you should watch, and you don't have to, because, for the price of a happy meal or two, some platforms will not only serve you up a crippling amount of things to choose from, but will take away the hassle of choosing by doing it for you.
You can replace movies with music, novels and many other art forms and the same will apply. It sounds like a win-win situation until you realise that it's all too easy to get stuck in a closed and endless self-perpetuating cycle, one that leaves no room for new discoveries. If an algorithm recommends a new thing based on the things (it thinks) you already like, or in some cases based on what other people who are similar to you are choosing, it perpetuates a cycle where you're consuming the same thing in different wrappings, and you start to edge closer and closer towards other people engaging in similar consumption. At what point do we need to start asking, are we putting too much faith in these platforms and algorithms?
If this question holds, then a more important question follows: what can we do to break the cycle, so as to facilitate serendipitous discovery?
I don't necessarily have the answers, not definitive ones anyway. I do know that I've felt the effects of this from both sides, as an art consumer and creator. For instance, in the past, I've tried launching social media campaigns to promote new music releases. The campaigns were targeted by default at audience segments similar to my followers. I didn't realise it at the time but I was ceding total control and creative license to the platform to say, you know best, find me new fans. It was as if I was saying to the algorithm, 'scour the ether and find me new people that look similar (in taste and behaviour) to the people that have already liked and followed my accounts'. I didn't stop to think of the possibility that the existing followers were not the representative target audience, whether current or aspirational, for my music. Needless to say, those campaigns weren't as productive as I'd hoped.
On the other side, as an art consumer rather than art creator, like everyone else, I gravitate to certain types of music over others, but I recognise the value in exposing myself to other genres, even the ones I don't necessarily make music in. Doing so should be as simple as searching for quality music in a new genre, but I need to be aware of the existence of the genre in order to search for music in that genre. It poses a catch-22 of sorts, one that has led me to the realisation that there are two steps to serendipitous discovery. First comes the exposure, then comes the immersion. This is how almost all learning takes place.
Another implication or manifestation of this catch-22 for creatives is how we market ourselves and promote our art. A few weeks ago I wrote about the industry's obsession with originality and the futility of striving for originality for the sake of it. I argued that instead, we should seek to situate new art relative to art we are already familiar with. After the post went out, a friend commented on how much they could relate to this as a music lover; they highlighted the observation that a lot of the independent bands they now love remind them of older bands they used to listen to.
This explains a question that I and other musicians on my local music scene get asked over and over – who do you sound like? In fact, last night on my way to a gig, I got asked this question by four lovely strangers who seemed to be having a good time on the town; the guitar on my back was a clear giveaway, and they just had to know who they could liken me to. What do you play? Who do you listen to? What's your genre? What’s your playing style? These questions always trip me up because I never know how to respond.
I fare better with the aforementioned questions these days, because, having had a lot of conversations along these lines, I've been able to crowdsource recommendations of musicians that people think I'm similar to. I've heard Donovan, The Beatles (their White Album phase), Ben Harper who I've always loved but never thought about the similarities, Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman in vocal timbre, Otis Redding, Jack Johnson, the list goes on. Armed with this never-ending list, it's easier to 'promote' my music to new audiences that may appreciate it. This is all made possible because I can liken what I do to what is already out there (what I’ve been immersed in), but I wouldn't have known what's out there if I hadn’t come across it in some way (what I’ve been exposed to). There's just so much knowledge, music, art, and content in the public domain that we simply can't get through everything there is, and coupled with the limited nature of our time and the fleeting nature of our lives, this collectively makes serendipitous discovery priceless.
If we accept the value of serendipitous discovery in art and life, then what can we do to foster and cultivate the garden on which seeds of fortuitous encounters can grow? It may seem paradoxical to suggest that we can be intentional about serendipitous discovery, and maybe it is. After all, the term centres around chance, as is in its title. Be that as it may, there are steps we can take to increase the likelihood or the chances that the seeds that blow in the wind will land on fertile garden patches. Here are some ideas, grounded in our two-step process – exposure and immersion.
First, on the exposure front, it helps to cast a wide enough net in social circles that will allow for the sampling of various types of content. In other words, it helps to go out and meet people, much as I hesitate to admit it given my introverted inclinations. Open mics, gigs, and creative outings are great for me in this regard, as they offer the multi-pronged effect of providing a platform to play new music in low-stakes environments, while exposing me to new and varied music styles and artists. Not only do I get to experiment with new things, but I also get to meet new people and have interesting conversations.
Second, on the exposure front, is to embrace spontaneity. Some of us are creatures of habit, we thrive on routines. As comforting as our routines are, it helps to recognise when it behooves us to deviate, even if just a little, from them. Maybe that means seeking out new venues to visit, or changing up our schedules to perform on different nights of the week, where life allows of course. We can extend it to our art consumption habits too. For instance, we can embrace the vanishing practice of deep listening, i.e. engaging with an album or record from start to finish in the order in which the artist intended, as opposed to ceding control to algorithms that select, shuffle and randomise what we listen to. I should say, again, that algorithms aren't the enemy; in fact, they can be crucial for serendipitous discovery too. I've discovered many independent artists through algorithmic recommendations, and I imagine that you have too. In this vein, algorithms offer a new avenue that didn't exist before the last decade or so. It is the insidious ubiquity of (and our over-reliance on) algorithms that could prove problematic, but time will tell.
Casting wide social nets and embracing spontaneity can help to facilitate exposure. But what can we do to leverage this exposure once the foot is in the door?
On the immersion front, I've learnt that it helps to ask rather than assume, and it helps to embrace being uncomfortable. There's hardly a better approach to pave the way for an interesting conversation than to ask a question. But what's the right question to ask? How does one even begin to talk to strangers, fellow creatives, or fans? I don't know, please send suggestions if you're adept at this sort of thing. I do know that as terrifying as breaking the ice can be, it is almost always worth it afterwards. What's more, is that it is often the case that the other party harbours the same anxiety as you, so in breaking the ice, you're doing yourselves both a favour. As one comic put it, the social landscape may feel like a terrifying jungle with wild animals all around, but it helps to remember that the animals are just as scared of you as you are of them.
As you open yourself up to serendipitous discovery, keep in mind that exposure and immersion will lead you to unexpected places, places that you won't always like. Imagine getting exposed to a new music genre, and immersing yourself in the music, only to find that it's not what you thought it'll be. Maybe the first few records you listen to don't tickle your fancy, or maybe they just evoke a different emotion to the work that served as your gateway to the genre. This is typical because genres (and categories in general) are not homogenous. When tempted to give up on the genre or category, remember that even if the majority of what you’ve found to date isn’t to your taste, the minority holds an abundance that will suffice to meet and even exceed your needs, if you’re willing to stay open to them.
In summary, there'll always be things you don't know, and of these things, there'll be things of which you're unaware of your ignorance. Maybe it's a word you've mispronounced all your life, maybe it's a music genre you never knew you liked, maybe it's an art form you dabble in that you never knew there was a market for. It pays to be deliberate in what you search for, and it helps to open up to new experiences and ideas. Fortuitous discoveries are one of the greatest joys of life, and serendipity – according to one singer-songwriter you might have heard of – is the Sweetest Thing I Know.