“Gifted” in Humble Language: A Japanese Lesson

As you may have noticed, the topic of intellectual giftedness comes up a fair amount here at Third Factor.  This is the legacy of the gifted education community’s early embrace of the theory of positive disintegration (TPD) and its concept of overexcitability (OE), as we discussed in our history of OE and explore in this issue’s interview with Sue Jackson of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted.  We figure, then, that many of you readers were labeled with that tricky G-word when you were in school.

We also know that many of our readers were not.  This surely includes some of you who do fit in this group but don’t realize it; it also includes those of you whose gifts aren’t those that our culture sees fit to describe as such, even if you might be very highly gifted in some way that makes Dabrowski’s theory particularly intriguing to you.

The thing is, “gifted” isn’t a very descriptive term.  Semantically, all it suggests is that you have something socially desirable.  But we understand that, when lacking qualifiers like “athletically” or “socially,” this refers to being “smart,” and of course, being “smart” is something everyone wants to be.  The theory of multiple intelligences let us know that there are many ways to be “smart,” but we still hold up above all the type of being smart that leads to good grades in school.  Nowadays, some people even argue that you should be stripped of the term “gifted” as an adult if you fail to become “eminent,” which would essentially mean that none of the kids in my gifted program were gifted after all.  Oops.

Of course, we at Third Factor don’t think there’s any “oops” at all.  What if there really is a group of people out there whose experience of life is different from the norm—and similar to each other’s—because of their neurology?  The popularity of OE in the gifted community suggests that traditional IQ tests were reasonably good at picking out these types, even if it failed to identify them all, and even if many of those identified stubbornly refused to pursue eminence.

The Weird Brains of the Abstract Intense

One trait that’s common in this group is intensity.  (That’s why they’re here reading about overexcitability.)  Another trait is their preference for, and facility with, the abstract.  This is key to their academic success.  Written language is, after all, an abstraction: it starts with manipulating letters and digits and gets deeper and deeper into the abstract as you climb the educational ladder.   Being good at abstracting, then, makes you academically gifted.  Furthermore, it seems likely that the stronger your delight in abstracting, and the more your ensuing 30,000 foot view of life feeds your intensity, the more you’re going to have the experience of life that I’m talking about here.

We editors at Third Factor think this experience is worth talking about.  But here’s the problem: no one wants to refer to herself as “gifted!”  It’s so awkward.  It sounds conceited.  It feels like you have to have something impressive to show for it, and all you have is a backlog of thoughts and feelings that’s big enough that it leaks out of your ears and leaves little messy puddles behind you.  People like this want to talk about challenges they face because of their abstract intensity, not one up each other with scores on some dumb test.

A while back, I decided to just ignore the awkwardness and broach the subject in my blog, because I’d realized that the leaky puddles had to be dealt with.  Moreover, since I’m a writer, I figured maybe that meant I could share my mop with others who had similar puddles.  I tried to tackle the awkwardness of the word “gifted” by turning to self-deprecation, in the form of an alternate word: weird-brained.  Hey, it seemed to fit: I’d seen evidence that giftedness is essentially another form of what’s now being called “neurodiversity,” though one that is distinct from the disabilities for which that term is most commonly used.  (It can, of course, overlap with neurodivergent disabilities such as autism or ADHD in those people known as twice-exceptional.)

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Through it all, I kept thinking: if only there were a better term for this way of being.  One that is both descriptive and neutral, ascribing no value or status.

And then I thought: this would all be so much easier if we all spoke Japanese.

I Humbly Suggest You Look Above Your Honorable Head

See, in Japanese, there’s this thing called keigo 敬語, or honorific language.  Explicit respect and humility are so important to interpersonal relations in Japan that they’ve got three levels of speech to express it.  There’s the honorific (sonkeigo 尊敬語), which is used to refer to those with higher social status; there’s the humble form (kenjougo 謙譲語), which you only ever use to refer to yourself or your in-group and by which you put yourself on a lower plane of status; and there’s ordinary speech, which doesn’t raise or lower anyone but which can be made more or less polite in all sorts of ways.

Just because English doesn’t have keigo doesn’t mean that we don’t experience the same desire to lower ourselves or lift others up.  That’s why most of us are so uncomfortable with the word “gifted.”

I know that’s confusing, so let me give you an example.  I was a US Pavilion Guide at the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, and as part of our training, they held a keigo course.  One useful word we learned was the honorific verb goran ni naruになる, which means “to look at” or “to see.”  We wanted to show respect, so we used goran ni naru to elevate our guests above us as we directed their attention to, say, our Mars Rover model.

Fast forward to the end of the Expo, when we guides were on our way home.  At the airport, the immigration officer used the verb haiken suru 拝見する when he asked to see our passports.  Haiken suru also means “to look at” or “to see,” but instead of elevating the other person with an honorific form, it lowers the speaker; that’s what makes it a humble form.  And though both goran ni naru and haiken suru mean “to see/look at,” you won’t learn either until maybe your third year of study in college.  Most Japanese 101 textbooks will only give you the ordinary form, which is miru 見る.  (Yeah, Japanese is fun.)

As I was thinking about the G-word problem one day, it struck me that when I referred to myself as “weird-brained,” I was using a form of humble language, lowering myself like that immigration officer.  Even as English speakers, most of us already have the instinct to treat “gifted” as an honorific, and in Japanese, you’d never use honorific language to refer to yourself.  That would imply raising yourself up above others.  Consider the example of another Japanese word you might know, sensei 先生.  It means “teacher,” but it’s actually a form of keigo.  When I taught at a Japanese high school, teachers sometimes used forms and envelopes that were pre-addressed with -先生, so all they had to do was write the surname of the teacher to whom they were writing.  If they needed to fill out the forms for themselves, however, they would strike through those two characters so as not to elevate themselves.

Just because English doesn’t have keigo doesn’t mean that we don’t experience the same desire to lower ourselves or lift others up as a way of facilitating social interaction.  That’s why most of us are so uncomfortable with the word “gifted,” especially when referring to ourselves or our in-group.

What’s the Plain Form for “Gifted?”

So might it be possible to come up with a word for giftedness that’s neither sonkeigo nor kenjougo, that presumes neither to raise nor to lower the speaker’s status, but just talks about this lived experience in a descriptive, neutral way?

I don’t want to toot my own horn, nor do I want to belittle myself.  The point is, I’m intense, and I’m an abstracter, and this explains a lot about who I am.

Many have stepped up to this challenge already.  Paula Prober, author and counselor to the gifted, came up with “rainforest mind.”  Running with the Japanese analogy, this feels a little bit like adding -chan to someone’s name: it’s an affectionate, familiar suffix that you might use with friends in place of the standard suffix –san.

A group of gifted education experts known as the Columbus Group suggests “asynchronous.”  This feels something like the suffix -kun.  It’s used with those who are equal or inferior to you, such as a teacher addressing a student.

Those opponents of the Columbus Group who suggested that giftedness means growing up to be “eminent” might like the suffix -sama.  Beginning Japanese learners (particularly those who have seen it used in anime) occasionally want to use -sama for people they respect, but this can sound silly, unless you’re hanging out with the Emperor.  I’m inclined to think that using the term “eminent” as equivalent to “gifted” sounds silly in the same way.

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Then there’s that one I snuck in earlier in this piece: abstract-intense.  Rather than ascribing nebulous value, it describes, pointing to that capacity for abstraction that’s at the heart of this particular gift, and to the high excitability that so often accompanies it.  This, to me, works as a plain stand-in for the honorific “gifted.”  You could surely come up with other terms to highlight a different set of experiences, or to point to distinct groups under the G-word umbrella, but this is what many of us are referring to when we talk about the lived experience of giftedness, including those gifted adults who don’t give a hoot about eminence.

The point is that when I talk about this experience, I don’t want to toot my own horn; nor do I want to belittle myself.  What I seek to convey is my intensity and my penchant for abstraction.  These, after all, explain so much about who I am and why I disintegrate and reintegrate in the way that I do.

I humbly submit this for your honorable consideration. ご検討のほど、よろしくお願い致します。


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Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org + posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.