22 February 2012

What Does "Being An Adult" Mean?

Somewhere between Stockholm and Paris, November 2011.

One of the most fascinating things I've experienced while living in Japan is how I came to discover ethics and values stunningly different than my own.

When one grows up in a country, a region, a family, a whole value system is built over time around beliefs, ethics, morals. And we all believe our own value system to be universal since it's the only one we know. For example what is right or wrong, what is love, what is being polite...

Of course, when you move to a new city or meet your partner's family, you might encounter some differences in the value system. To me, nothing compares taking a flight and land across the globe, where I found out that my values were all but universal.

One concrete example of these difference in the very definition of fundamental notions between cultures is, as I experienced, what we call "being an adult", in other terms being mature. At first glance, it doesn't seem to be that big a deal, but I think this is at the core of our childhood and education. Children learn to become adults, through politeness, social conventions, making the difference between right and wrong...

"Being an adult" according to my French education

Here is, to me, what "being an adult" means in the value system I grew up - the main characteristics of the concept.

Being an adult is being capable to handle onself without external help. Adults are able to live, fulfuill their own needs  and their family's, insert themselves in society and are capable to make their own decisions.

In other words, being adult means being independant and self sufficient, as opposed to a child who needs emotional and financial support from his/her family.

"Being an adult" accoring to the Japanese people I met

The first time I was confronted with a difference in the definition of the term was at a party. There were French people who knew each other and a Japanese girl who was brought by a guest as a friend. We tried to include her in our conversations but she was shy and didn't participate much through the evening.

The next day, a Japanese friend of mine who knew her told me that we, this group of French people, were childish because we weren't able to understand her shyness and make her feel comfortable at the party. He told us were have been selfish and didn't take her emotions into account. Whereas for us, if she wasn't self sufficient enough to make the effort to integrate herself to the conversation, it was her problem, not ours.

This is where I understood the fundamental difference between my definition of "being an adult" and his. To him, being a adult means keeping your emotions inside and try to understand other peoples' emotions, in order not to make them feel uncomfortable.

In other words, being an adult means being capable of empathy, to put other people's need ahead of our own, as opposed to children who are selfish because they are only capable to handle their own needs and emotions.

In the end, what does "being an adult" mean?

Thinking back on both definitions, I believe that both apply to "adult" to a certain extent, they complement each other. An adult is independant and self sufficient, but an adult is also capable of living among other people and take their emotions into account.

It's just that my education and this Japanese guy's education didn't stress the same parts of what "being an adult" means. Now I wonder, why is that? Is this the reflection of what society is waiting from us as adults? What is the origin of these cultural differences?

What do you think about this? What does "being an adult" mean to you?


  1. Wow, this is a very interesting topic. I'm torn on this because you stated that the group tried to include the shy girl in conversations, but she didn't participate.

    Like you, I was raised that being an adult meant that you are responsible for your own feelings and actions. (I'm Californian by the way, but I have traveled all over the world.)

    I think there is only so much you can do to help others and then they must make an effort. Putting other people first and repressing your own needs is not authentic. For me, fake and polite conversation is exasperating.

    When you become an adult you've got to take care of yourself. It's childish to expect other people to do it.

  2. I tend to agree with you, my education gets me toward the same idea. However, I understand that even if this girl is not adult by not overcoming her shyness and accept our tentatives to include her, maybe it wasn't very adult of us to let things go and have fun anyway either.

    I do agree that repressing your own needs is not authentic though, and to me, a part of being adult is also to have the courage to stand for one's own opinions and ideas. But that's another debate entirely...

  3. I recommend "The geography of thought" by Richard Nisbett on similar topics. Maybe the cultural differences when it comes to individuality and collectivism come into play here? As you wrote (two years ago.. I'm reading your archive! :)): in some cultures adults take care of their own needs and in others adults take care of people around them.

    1. Thanks for this books recommendation, I'll definitely check it out. In that particular example, yes, I believe individuality and collectivism enter into play. Japanese culture is one of the most collectivists I know of - and one of the reasons is that they lived on rice culture for centuries, and over 50 people needed to cooperate to successfully manage a rice crop. People needed to put the harmony of the group ahead of their individual needs in order to make it work and ensure everybody had enough to eat. It is not the only factor, but it is one of the defining ones.

      I really find this interesting because first, discovering these definitions of everyday values teach a lot about a country's culture. But it is also interesting because it gives a different perspective from the one we've been raised in. For the example of "being an adult", I realized a lot of French adults around me - myself included - have a certain tendency to lack of empathy, to take other people's emotions less into consideration than what I've seen in Japan. It made me realize that maybe I should learn a bit from the Japanese perspective and be more cautious of other people's preferences and feelings.