Wing It Like a Confucian

Portland State University


Anyone who answers their cell phones or opens email is an improviser. As we gradually learn to live without the filters that once helped people control the pace and content of their days—setting a time to open the mail or make and receive calls, for example—we improve our impromptu communication skills.

People who let every call go to voicemail as a screening tactic improvise less. They communicate less, too.

When asked why I returned to Asia, an important reason is my lifelong passion for improvisation. Asia is great for people like me.

Confucian principles that helped shape almost every Asian culture stress tradition and self-control; yet the emphasis on internalized values also implicitly promotes a life of improvisation . . . not needing to plan so carefully when the social ground rules are so clear.

Most Americans, on the other hand, avoid ground rules. We prefer clear contexts and topic “frameworks” in our conversations. Many Asians have a hard time with this. And it isn’t only about verbal communication: traditional Asian artists tend to avoid the kind of construction style composition that characterize Western painting. This makes it easier for them to improvise.

As the Western institutions that insist on rigid structures and principles struggle and falter, and our lives increasingly adopt the unsteady pace and dynamics of digital intercourse, we should acknowledge and nurture our inner improviser.

One split second at a time.


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