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4 The Learning Process in Inuit Society: Teasing as Logical Consequence of Sociocultural System

4 The Learning Process in Inuit Society: Teasing as Logical Consequence of Sociocultural System

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Sociocultural Cultivation of Positive Attitudes Toward Learning: Considering. . .


affection toward other adults so as not to damage others’

autonomy. Therefore, to perform in a socially proper manner, adults must carefully balance two conflicting needs: the

need to express their affection toward others and the need to

demonstrate their faculties of reason in respecting others’

autonomy. To mature into a real Inuit is to learn the exquisite art of properly achieving a balance between the essential

but conflicting qualities of affection and reason.

This balance has the following logical consequences:

(1) Inuit adults are encouraged to internalize “the spirit of

approaching difficulties both seriously and playfully” as a

proper, mature attitude and (2) they are virtually forbidden

from teaching teenagers and young adults directly by giving

verbal instructions. In the following sections, I examine

these consequences one at a time.

relaxed, joked around, and laughed as they repaired the

engine as if nothing serious was happening. This attitude is

also reflected in the following song reported by Franz Boas

(1927, p. 300):

23.4.2 The Spirit of Approaching Difficulties

Both Seriously and Playfully: A Highly

Valued Attitude in Inuit Society

Moreover, Briggs reported the following incident in

which a middle-aged Inuit laughed aloud in front of his

burning tent:

When I asked an elder what qualities are highly respected as

wise and intelligent, his answer could be summarized as

follows: A wise person always keeps his or her mind in a

state of peace without having any hostile feelings toward

others and is willing to make fun of herself/himself to make

others laugh and feel happy. Clearly, this elder intended to

provide me an example of a real Inuit, who has both affection and reason.

However, this is only an ideal to be pursued. Because the

Inuit are only human, they seldom achieve their ideal. Like

the rest of us, they are easily obsessed by hostile feelings

toward others, such as hatred and envy, and are frequently in

such dark moods that they withdraw. It is not rare for the

Inuit to be upset by unexpected difficulties or their own

failures in hunting, fishing, trapping, and trading trips. Moreover, that such an ideal is so eagerly pursued ironically

indicates their inclination to hold hostile feelings, to withdraw into their shells, and to lose their presence of mind in

the face of difficulties and frustrations.

Thus, the Inuit highly value laughing at themselves and

laughing away difficult conditions. For example, one of

my older colleagues in arctic anthropological fieldwork

provided the following anecdote. When the boat my colleague rode drifted on the night sea because of engine

trouble, the hunter driving it and his family relaxed, joked,

and laughed while waiting for rescue, leaving my panicked

colleague to cry for help. They even laughed at his agitation.

Most probably, the hunter was also uneasy but tried to

keep calm, accept, and cope with the difficult situation by

laughing at it. I have also often experienced similar

situations, although only during the daytime in summer. In

those cases, the people in the stranded boat are always

An Eskimo youth was carried away in the fall on the drifting ice.

After a few days he succeeded in reaching land. During these

days of danger and privation he composed a song in which he

mocked his own misfortunes and the hardships he had endured,

a song which appealed to the fancy of the people and which soon

became popular in all the villages.

Aya, I am joyful; this is good!

Aya, There is nothing but ice around me, that is good!

Aya, I am joyful; this is good!

My country is nothing but slush, that is good!

Aya, I am joyful; this is good!

Aya, when, indeed, will this end? this is good!

I am tired of watching and waking, this is good!

Once I saw a man doubled up with laughter on the occasion of

his tent burning, and when I foolishly asked why he was

laughing, the answer was: ‘What else could he do but laugh?’

In addition, if one demonstrates through laughter that one is not

resentful or angry and, therefore, need not be feared, then people

might feel like helping to repair the damage” (Briggs 1991,

p. 277).

Laughing when one is in a difficult situation, just like

breathing deeply, is effective in calming oneself enough to

accept and cope with the situation, giving oneself the distance to objectify the situation instead of being upset. Moreover, as Briggs stated in the preceding quotation, such

laughter demonstrates to others that one does not bear malice

and has others’ pleasure and welfare in mind—that is, one

is a well-socialized, safe person. Thus, Inuit adults try to

share jokes with each other for fun. The purpose of such

jokes can be discerned from the following example,

although caricatured and exaggerated because it targeted

me, a stranger hardly to be judged as child or adult on

account of my strange behaviors.

Example 8: A Joke About Money

This is a joking game, which an Inuit elder and I (Keiichi)

play almost every day before his relatives in the living room

of his house, where I was staying. The game follows the

same scenario every day.



(suddenly lifting up his eyes from a bill, such as a

phone bill, a gasoline bill, or a bill for house rent,

and addressing me sitting next to him at a dining

table): “Hey, Keiichi, give me money or pay it for


“I have no money at all.”




K. Omura

(with a serious look on his face) “I am serious,

not lying.”

(standing up straight extending my arms in front

of him, thus taking the same posture as in a body

check): “Go ahead!”

The people around us in the living room, becoming aware

that the game has just started, begin to focus on our exchange

with smiles of expectation. The elder searches me for

money, but finds nothing. (I learned never to carry money

on me because I anticipated that this game would occur

every day.)




“You hide it in your room, don’t you?”

(in an exaggerated voice and gesture with a serious look on my face) “Naaka (‘no’ in the Inuit

language), nothing at all, I am really poor.”

(pointing his finger in the opposite direction to

my room): “OK, Keiichi, look this way for a

while,” or “Oh, what is that?”

I turn my eyes from him, following his request. The elder

suddenly dashes to my room in an exaggerated motion.

Noticing his dash, I hastily run in hot pursuit of him and

jump to seize him around the waist. The elder begins

laughing aloud, and I follow. Eventually, the whole audience

is moved to laughter.


(exaggeratedly making a funny face, pretending

to cry) “I am crying.”


(shaking with laughter) “Cry!”

The elder and the audience burst out laughing again.


(shaking with laughter) “Keiichi, you are pleasant—you are a good fellow. You are really a pleasant person.”

Then, after everyone laughs awhile, the game ends. In addition, I play other games with him: He conceals my wallet or

credit cards from view; he pretends to tear or doodle on my

field notes; he pretends to steal my belongings or pesters me

for them.

Example 9: Joke About Sleeping Together

This is a joke that I often exchange with one of my female

friends to maintain the mood when there is a momentary

break in the conversation among some easygoing adults. The

game follows the same scenario.


(with a serious look on her face) “Keiichi, are you

going to visit me to sleep with me tonight?”

Everyone starts smiling in expectation of the game.





(with a more serious look on his face) “I can’t

because you have a husband, don’t you?”

(with an even more serious look on her face) “It

doesn’t matter.”

(cheering me with exaggerated voices)

“Keiichi, you should go. Go ahead!”

(suddenly turning defiant) “OK, I am going to

bed you tonight. Let’s go now.”

I stand up and, holding my hands toward her, pretend to

leave with her. She also pretends to leave with me, but in a

moment, we begin laughing together. After everyone laughs

awhile, the game ends.

The topics of these jokes are so delicate that they cause

much more laughter than other topics. To keep conversation

about such delicate topics enjoyable and inoffensive,

participators must not take them seriously. Moreover, they

must exercise moderation while joking in order not to ruin

the pleasant mood or hurt others by carrying the joke too far.

Thus, sharing a joke with others requires participants to

carefully observe the expressions and gestures of others and

at the right moment seize an opportunity to end the joke

before ruining the pleasant mood or hurting anyone. In

sum, joking requires highly developed skills in social interaction in which participators do not take what is said literally

but pay close attention to the development of an ongoing

conversation, considering how their counterparts feel.

This attitude can be called “the spirit of approaching

difficulties both seriously and playfully” and is often

exhibited in the face of unexpected problems during subsistence activities. Confronted with difficulties, the Inuit try to

laugh them off to calm themselves, as previously described.

However, they have to do something more: Fix an engine,

call for help by radio, or check the surroundings to confirm

their safety. Thus, they laugh and, at the same time, address

the problem at hand quite seriously. In this sense, laughing

during an emergency enables the Inuit to work seriously on

the problem but stay calm enough to cope. As Briggs (1968,

1970) noted, the commonly used phrase Ajurnatman!

(because it cannot be helped!) does not signify resignation

to fate but indicates an attitude of approaching difficulties

both seriously and playfully. In this sense, real Inuit means a

person who does not take difficult situations too seriously,

but calmly and effectively objectifies and copes with them.

23.4.3 The Ban on Direct Teaching

and Encouragement of Spontaneous


As previously mentioned, direct instruction of children and

teenagers is rare because they are assumed to learn what they

need to know spontaneously as they mature into reasoning


Sociocultural Cultivation of Positive Attitudes Toward Learning: Considering. . .

adults. The Inuit consider it absurd to teach, scold, or get

angry with children because they have not developed reason.

Rather, they must be treated and protected carefully with

deep affection. Somewhat differently, teaching, scolding, or

forcing teenagers to do something is considered discourteous

because they do have reason, albeit underdeveloped, and

thus must be accorded respect for their autonomy. If one

teaches, scolds, or becomes angry at children and teenagers,

one’s own sense is called into question. Therefore, Inuit

adults are virtually forbidden to teach or instruct children

and teenagers directly, but rather are encouraged to help

them learn spontaneously.

The Inuit emphasis on independent learning is reflected in

the fact that no stem in Inuktitut indicates teaching. To

express teaching, one must use the stem ilinniaq-, which

means learning, and then use the causative suffix -ti- to say

ilinniaqtiRara, which means literally “I make one learn.”

Likewise, schoolteacher is expressed as ilinniaqtitiji, which

means literally “the person making one learn.” In other

words, in Inuktitut, the notion of teaching derives from

learning and means, to put it accurately, “preparing a suitable environment for learning and therein leading one to

learn spontaneously.” Thus, Inuktitut indicates that spontaneous learning is valued above instructed learning.

This does not mean, however, that teenagers are never

admonished or remonstrated with for their conduct. Rather,

teenagers are often extensively admonished, precisely

because they are considered to have reason. However, they

are not generally directly scolded or blamed for a failure or

bad deed, but lectured about the importance of correcting the

situation. In short, adults who admonish teenagers try to

appeal to their good sense. In one instance, I witnessed a

teenager, who did not want to take a wage-earning job, and

lectured in his living room for more than an hour. In even

tones, his grandfather emphasized the importance of hard

work and making his family happy, giving his experiences as

an example.

Even so, I rarely witnessed skillful hunters instructing

teenagers, either directly or verbally, in hunting techniques

while hunting, fishing, and trapping, although I accompanied

them many times. Moreover, skillful hunters rarely instruct

teenagers directly or verbally on how to handle subsistencerelated tools such as rifles, harpoons, spears, nets, ropes, and

snowmobiles. During such activities, teenagers usually complete their tasks without any direction from more skilled

hunters, instead judging from events what to do next. In

most cases, they collaborate without saying anything, except

for exchanging pleasant jokes. In other words, teenagers

learn how to handle such activities through observation or

by trial and error while helping skillful hunters in subsistence activities. If teenagers fail to handle tasks well or risk

doing something dangerous, skillful hunters offer a helping

hand instead of scolding. Skillful hunters always pay


attention to teens’ behaviors, but even so, they rarely scold

or blame them for their failures or behaviors. Likewise,

teenagers rarely ask more skilled hunters verbal questions

about tasks.

In fact, teenagers never ask questions or ask for help

because they have acquired reason and realize they are

expected to be autonomous. To ask questions or for help is

considered childish and shows one lacks reason. Indeed,

adults address questions to children only within the framework of joking games. In ordinary social life, addressing

questions to adults is considered extremely rude behavior.

In particular, question about others’ intentions, such as

Hutman? (“How come?” or “Why?”), is considered

extremely discourteous and thus avoided. Following Inuit

logic, according to which adults have an autonomous,

inviolable will, any adults with reasonable intentions must

be respected, no matter how strange their actions seem.

Thus, asking adults about their intentions is tantamount to

accusing them or showing disrespect for them. Indeed,

whenever I carelessly ask foolish questions, following my

custom as an anthropologist, Inuit adults nonchalantly

ignore the question and me, looking the other way as if

nothing has happened or sullenly answer, Hutmalikiaq

(I wonder why).

Thus, in Inuit society, a combination of observational

(or imitative) and collaborative learning is the primary

mode of learning, while instructed learning rarely occurs.5

In this sense, children and teenagers indeed spontaneously

learn what they need to know as they grow into adulthood

without verbal instruction. However, this does not mean

knowledge comes naturally to them. Rather, they must

acquire a positive attitude toward learning before beginning


As Paradise and Rogoff (2009) illustrated, the form of informal

learning by observing and pitching in with everyday activities is “a

panhuman cultural practice, comfortable for and well suited for human

learning of all kinds” (Paradise and Rogoff 2009, p. 132), one example

of which is the Inuit observational and collaborative learning presented

in this section. One of the most important future tasks of anthropological studies must be to elucidate the detailed mechanism of this form of

learning. As proposed by some anthropologists studying about knowing

practices, such as Marchand (2010) and Downey (2010), we must be

required to collaborate with cognitive science, philosophy of mind,

psychology, neuroscience, biology, medicine, and so on, to accomplish

this task, that is, to elucidate the process of informal learning. This is

because it entails ecological and sociocultural “interaction between

interlocutors and practitioners with their total environment” (Marchand

2010, p. S1). Thus, we have to think “about human knowledge through

exploration of the interdependence of nurture with nature; and more

specifically the interdependence of minds, bodies, and environment”

(Marchand 2010, p. S2). In other words, as Downey (2010) proposed,

we have to consider this form of learning as “enskilment,” that is, the

patient transformation of the novice, the change of his or her muscles,

attention patterns, motor control, neurological systems, emotional

reactions, interaction patterns, and top-down self-management

techniques” (Downey 2010, p. 36).


to learn. Only after acquiring this attitude is it possible for

them to voluntarily observe the behaviors of skillful adults

and thereby learn what they should do according to


Based on this voluntary attitude, teenagers learn what

they need to know from not only helping adults but also

from listening to their conversations and reminiscences. As a

matter of course, the primary purpose of adults’ conversation

is not to educate, but to exchange information or just enjoy

the conversation itself. However, for teenagers with a positive attitude toward learning, these conversations are a treasure mine, from which they learn much. Indeed, as I reported

elsewhere (Omura 2013a), they carefully listen to and spontaneously learn from adults, while occupying themselves

with their own affairs in their own way. Although their

way of listening seems casual and indifferent, the fact of

the matter is quite the opposite: Teens listen quite eagerly.

This can be gathered from their reactions to the

conversations’ development or from the fact that they accurately remember and have frequently repeated to me what

they have heard.

To summarize, in the Inuit learning process, (1) children

are not given instruction in techniques and knowledge

because they do not yet have the reason indispensable to

learning, and (2), conversely, teenagers are not given direct,

verbal instruction because they must be accorded respect for

their autonomy. Thus, in Inuit society, adults are virtually

forbidden from directly teaching or scolding children and

teenagers. In other words, Inuit teenagers must acquire a

positive attitude toward learning and thereby spontaneously

learn through observation.

23.4.4 The Sociocultural Background of Teasing

Children: The Cultivation of a Positive

Attitude Toward Learning

At this point, it should be clear how adults’ teasing functions

as a training device for children in Inuit society. The aim of

teasing, as shown previously, is to give children the opportunity to learn the art of patience, to objectify situations

calmly, and to sharpen their powers of observation. These

are essential to both the attitudes examined in the sections

above: (1) the ideal attitude of a real Inuit, i.e., the spirit of

approaching difficulties both seriously and playfully, and

(2) a positive attitude toward learning, upon which the primary mode of learning—observational and collaborative—

is based. The ability to objectify situations and the art of

patience are indispensable to the former attitude. Likewise,

observational and collaborative learning would be impossible without the art of patience, the power of observation, and

the ability to objectify situations. In short, adults’ teasing

provides children with both a goal they should aim for and

K. Omura

opportunities to prepare themselves for observational and

collaborative learning.

Therefore, teasing can be considered a device for

pre-learning, through which both the Inuit cultural ideal of

motivation to learn spontaneously and a positive attitude

toward learning are inculcated into children to introduce

them to observational and collaborative learning.6 In this

sense, teasing plays an important role as a pre-learning

device in the Inuit learning process. Although children do

not learn any specific techniques or knowledge, they acquire

the basic foundations for learning through teasing ordeals.

Teenagers might not spontaneously learn what they need to

know to develop into adults without enduring the ordeal.

This can be inferred from adults’ ceasing to tease children

when they judge them to have acquired reason.

The role of teasing as a device for pre-learning is reflected

in this Inuit elder’s talk about his memories:

When I was a small child, my uncle used to come to our iglu

(snow house) every morning. Then, he used to pick me up in his

arms out from warm bedding and put me on a cold ice block on

the floor. I remember it was really cold. I really hated his cruel

treatment. Thus, I hated him. I used to think he also hated me

because he treated me so badly. But I found out that he really

loved me after he passed away. Now, I appreciate his treatment.

Thanks to his treatment, I grew up into a patient person who

does not easily get angry or upset. (Synopsis of a story told by an

Inuit elder living at Kugaaruk in Nunavut Territory, March


This elder’s story is important because it demonstrates the

difficulty children have in understanding both the instructive

purpose behind teasing and the sincerely affectionate

intentions behind this harsh treatment. However, precisely

because children believe such teasing to be cruel and stressful, they try to escape it in earnest. Moreover, because they

are routinely (and suddenly) thrown into these situations

without any instruction, they soon come to believe they

might have no option but to understand their world as full

of such cruel and unreasonable difficulties.

Furthermore, such teasing continues as long as children

continue to follow their emotional desires, become upset,

lose their tempers, and become angry or cry. Only after they

cease such childish reactions and begin to cope with the

teasing patiently, even under harsh conditions, and learn to

react correctly through their own observations can they

escape being the target of teasing. Moreover, they must


It remains to be explored whether the device for pre-learning is a

panhuman device or not and, if it is universal in modern humans, what

forms it takes in each setting. In addressing these questions, we have to

bio-culturally approach to them because, as Downey (2010)

demonstrated, it inevitably affects the organic body. It also remains to

be investigated how the body of Inuit children is forged as the matrix of

two attitudes, a positive attitude toward learning and the ideal attitude

of a real Inuit, through teasing as a device for pre-learning.


Sociocultural Cultivation of Positive Attitudes Toward Learning: Considering. . .

come to understand teasing situations independently because

nobody will tell them what to do, even though they get some

clues. Having been exposed to these situations for as long as

they can remember, they come to understand that they live in

a world full of cruel, unreasonable difficulties and have no

option but to extract themselves through their own efforts.

There is one more important thing to be considered here.

As I mentioned above, babies are never teased, but indulged

as objects of adults’ affection—in contrast to children.

Linked with the process of both the development of selfconsciousness and the projection of self onto others, indulgence toward babies, as I demonstrated elsewhere (Omura

2013b), causes them to develop deep affection toward others

around them, in most cases, members of their extended

families. At the same time, babies take it for granted that

adults will lavish affection on them. Since children are

accustomed to being loved and indulged by others, teasing

can make a strong impact on them because they become

confused by exactly the opposite treatment. In other words,

if children had not been indulged during babyhood, such

teasing would not function efficiently. Wondering why

they are being so badly treated by adults who are supposed

to love them, children become extremely confused.

Nevertheless, this does not lead them to believe that they

are not loved and then to go astray. When they understand

the intention behind the apparent cruelty and succeed in

resolving the situation by treating the teasing as play, they

eventually discover that teasing per se actually reflects

adults’ affection for them. By finding a way out of the

discomfort of being teased, they can finally enjoy the

pleasures of being loved.

23.4.5 Teasing as a Logical Consequence

of the Sociocultural System

Having overcome such ordeals during childhood and thereafter having learned various techniques and knowledge by

observation, adults and elders come to understand that they

live in a cruel and difficult world but can cope with its

difficulties by their own efforts. This is because the actual

world is the very world they first experienced through their

childhood development process. Therefore, for adults who

take this worldview for granted, children who cannot coolly

objectify the situation and are only confused by teasing

appear to be fools. However, precisely because children

show their hopeless silliness do adults openly express their

affection for them without reserve.

In usual social intercourse, as previously described,

adults must refrain from openly expressing affection for

each other in order to respect each other’s autonomy. However, this ordinal rule of social intercourse does not apply

to interactions with babies and children, whose lovable


thoughtlessness is apparent. Thus, by interacting with children, adults are released from the cultural dilemma of having

to simultaneously express affection for others and reason

in the form of respect to the other’s autonomy, i.e., act

according to the cultural ideal of real Inuit. Their desire to

express affection openly, suppressed by this cultural ideal,

can be realized in a socially acceptable way through openly

expressed affection for babies and children.

Once children are judged to have acquired reason, however, adults must stop teasing them to accord respect for

their autonomy. However, the only way to judge whether

children have acquired reason is to infer this from their

behaviors. One such behavior is reacting calmly to teasing.

It follows that the most reliable method of judging whether

children have acquired reason is to tease them and observe

how they react. Then, if the children’s reactions indicate that

they have acquired reason, adults are obliged to stop teasing

them. On the contrary, if the children lose their tempers,

adults can continue to express affection openly without fear

of social stigma. Thus, teasing provides adults with a safe

means of determining how to interact appropriately with


Moreover, if the teased person treats teasing as a joke and

tries to cap the joke, as in the joking game about money, both

the teaser and teased can expect future teasing not to cross

any lines, but rather to develop into more pleasant joking. In

this case, participants can expect each other to observe their

counterparts’ expressions carefully and seize the chance to

end the joke before ruining the pleasant mood or hurting

their counterparts. Moreover, once teasers and teased establish a field for joking and reasonably maintain it, all their

interactions in this context become a relaxed, pleasant joke

so that they do not need to refrain from openly expressing

affection to each other. Thus, teasing also gives adults a

means of expressing affection freely.

This is the real pleasure of joking in Inuit culture.

Released from the cultural dilemma between affection and

reason, which obliges a certain distance in social discourse,

Inuit adults can temporarily enjoy intimate relationships

through teasing without fear of violating another’s autonomy. They frankly exchange jokes, share their pleasure, and

join in the laughter. However, they can enjoy such pleasure

only when they succeed in establishing and maintaining a

field for joking. To do so, they exert the full power of their

reason not to take the situation seriously. In other words,

they are required to put forth a serious effort to treat words

and conduct as just a joke, to enjoy the pleasure. This is one

reason the Inuit highly value the spirit of approaching

difficulties both seriously and playfully.

However, this is not the case with children, because they

lack the reason needed to understand and maintain the metaframe within which the joking games advance. Nevertheless,

this does not lead to the joking’s termination. Rather, the


meta-frame for a joking game between adults and children is

maintained precisely because of the very silliness children

demonstrate. The silliness indicates that the child does not

yet have reason so that adults are released from usual social

constraints and thus can openly express affection in the form

of teasing. In this case, the meta-frame for joking games is

transformed into a meta-frame for interaction with children

lacking reason, and within that meta-frame, adults can lavish

affection on children without reserve.

However, they have to quit teasing children if their

reactions show that children are developing reason. If they

fail to do so, their sense should be called into question. Only

under the condition that children’s reactions show their

silliness are adults allowed to lavish affection on them without any restraint in the form of teasing. Therefore, as I

pointed out above, in order to judge whether they are

allowed to do so, the adults are driven to tease children.

Then, if children show their silliness, adults are allowed to

express affection. Moreover, at the same time, children’s

silly reactions arouse in adults great affection and a desire

to protect them. Then, their affection, aroused by children’s

silliness, drives them to tease children further. This is the

reason adults relentlessly tease children without getting tired

of it. The more children express a silly reaction, the more

adults are driven by their affection to tease them.

In this sense, Inuit adults tease children not so much to

educate them as to satisfy their own compelling desire to

lavish affection on them. Of course, as in the elder’s story

cited above, adults understand that teasing serves to educate

children. However, it follows from what I have shown above

that adults are driven to tease children primarily by affection.

Thus, the educational effect occurs only as a by-product.

Then, precisely because adults are driven primarily by their

compelling desire to lavish affection on them, the safety of

children is firmly secured, no matter how severely they may

be teased. No matter how severe teasing may seem, what lies

at its heart is adults’ deep affection for children and their

cherished desire to protect weak but lovable children.

Thus, we can conclude that adults’ teasing of children plays

the crucial role of an engine driving the Inuit life cycle, which

is constructed as the following recursive system. As an inevitable consequence of the life cycle, which is organized as a

balanced development process of affection and reason, Inuit

adults are always required to carefully balance two conflicting

needs: (1) a need to express affection toward others and (2) a

need to demonstrate reason by respecting others’ autonomy. In

other words, adults face the cultural dilemma between affection and reason in most social intercourse. However, in the

case of interaction with babies and children, they are released

from these constraints. Thus, driven by their affection, adults

indulge babies and tease children.

In the case of babies whose lack of reason is obvious,

adults can indulge them without any concern for hurting

K. Omura

their autonomy. Then, while indulged by adults, babies

develop deep affection toward others around them. With

children, who gradually acquire reason and thinking skills

as they develop, adults are driven to tease them not only by a

desire to lavish affection on them but also to judge whether it

is still acceptable to do so. Then, while teased by adults,

children gradually learn both the Inuit cultural ideal of

motivation to learn spontaneously and a positive attitude

toward learning, the preliminary skills for observational

and collaborative learning.

Then, during the teen stage, young Inuit begin to learn,

through observational and collaborative learning, the necessary techniques and knowledge to develop into economically

and socially independent adults. Once they reach adulthood,

having experienced the cultural dilemma between affection

and reason, their life cycle returns to its starting point, and

the entire process is repeated. Thus, adults’ teasing of children functions as an engine of the Inuit life cycle, which not

only is driven by but also recursively reproduces the cultural

dilemma between affection and reason.

Therefore, adults’ teasing of children should be regarded

not merely as an educational device, but also as a device for

generating and maintaining Inuit society. Of course, teasing

has the effect of educating children. However, it becomes

possible to function efficiently with such a device only when

it is situated within the recursive system of the Inuit life

cycle, which must generate new members to perpetuate and

maintain a society. Moreover, adults tease children not so

much to educate them as to satisfy their own compelling

desire to lavish affection on them. Thus, precisely because

teasing functions not only as an engine indispensable to

driving the life cycle but also as an emotionally driven

practice, both the safety and earnestness of children are

secured so that the process functions effectively.


The Sociocultural Cultivation of Positive

Attitudes Toward Learning: The

Differentiating Factor in Learning

Ability Between Neanderthals

and Modern Humans

Through teasing, Inuit children learn the following two

abilities indispensable to what Tomasello called cumulative

cultural evolution: (1) the ability to engage in theory of mind

and (2) the ability to objectify the content of cultural


As I have shown in this paper, teasing leads children to

learn not to simply interpret others’ words and actions literally, but to discover latent intentions through careful observation of context, such as facial expressions, gestures, tones

of voice, etc. This is nothing but the ability to engage in

theory of mind essential to cultural learning, which


Sociocultural Cultivation of Positive Attitudes Toward Learning: Considering. . .

constitutes the first stage of cultural evolution. Although, as I

demonstrated elsewhere (Omura 2013b), children already

acquire this ability through both the development of selfconsciousness and projection of self onto others during

babyhood, this ability is further strengthened and cultivated

by teasing.

Moreover, teasing leads children to learn not to follow

their emotional desires naively, but to observe and evaluate

situations in order to discern a meta-frame and reach a proper

solution independently. This is nothing but the ability to

objectify, which is essential to creation, the second stage of

cultural evolution. In this sense, adults’ teasing of children in

Inuit society is equivalent to a koan (paradox) in Zen, which

Bateson (1972) uses to exemplify the ability to objectify, but

is even more emotionally laden so that children have difficulty

distancing themselves from and evade it as a joke. Children

learn this ability while grappling with an emotionally laden,

paradoxical dilemma, like Zen candidates, but more patiently.

Thus, through the ordeal of being teased, children cultivate

the art of patience, learn to objectify situations calmly, and to

observe closely—all abilities essential to a positive attitude

toward learning; this is the basis for cultural learning and

creation, although during childhood, they do not learn any

specific techniques or knowledge. Moreover, while learning

this attitude, children also learn as a naturalized truth that the

world is full of unexpected difficulties; nevertheless, they

would be able to find a way out of difficulties by their own

efforts. In other words, in Inuit society, two abilities indispensable to cultural evolution are inculcated into children not

separately, but through the cultivation of a positive attitude

toward learning during childhood. Thereafter, guided by this

attitude, the Inuit spontaneously learn established techniques

and knowledge and how to develop creative modifications

and inventions when necessary.

It is also important here that, as previously noted, this

attitude is socioculturally cultivated only within the life

cycle’s recursive system for no less than 10 years. Of course,

this attitude is also based on biological mechanisms. However, the attitude would not develop without a sociocultural

process, like the teasing in Inuit society, even if it is based on

a biologically evolutional process. Likely, then, both

abilities indispensable to cultural evolution should be

socioculturally acquired within some institution on the

basis of a biological mechanism. Thus, Inuit adults’ teasing

of children tells us that the modern humans’ species-unique

mechanism of cumulative cultural evolution becomes possible only when humans developed sociocultural institutions,

even if institutions are based on abilities acquired through a

biologically evolutional process.

Therefore, we can conclude that the most important factor

distinguishing the learning abilities of Neanderthals and

modern humans is not biological ability, but rather a difference in their respective collective methods of generating and


maintaining sociocultural institutions. This does not mean,

of course, that this difference is based on biological

differences. However, it is impossible to close in on the

truth of the difference in learning ability without considering

the difference in sociality. This conclusion should eventually

lead us to the following view: While Neanderthals might not

have been able to fully experience cultural evolution through

the development of institutions, modern humans developed

sociocultural institutions advantageous to developing objectification, as in the Inuit life cycle, and thus fully realized

cultural evolution.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank Professor Hideaki

Terashima and Professor Barry S. Hewlett for precious comments on

early drafts of this article. I would also like to thank Enago (www.

enago.jp) for the English language review.


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