“News of the Weird” Phenomenon

News of the Weird phenomenon is when we easily dismiss bizarre incidents from our own society, because we know they originated in a minor subculture, were committed by people with some kind of problem, were done by a marginalized group such as “rednecks” or criminals or fringe political elements, etc. However, we don’t have the same insider knowledge about “weird news” from most other cultures. As a result, when we read something sensational or peculiar, our attempts to practice cultural relativism kick into overdrive and we may accept the item as representative rather than anomalous.

I think of this as “News of the Weird phenomenon” because when we read the “News of the Weird,” “Weird,” “Odd News,” or “Auch das noch” section of our own newspaper, we don’t take it seriously. Yet when we–or our students–hear shocking things about the cultures in which we travel or study or work–there’s a greater tendency to place some kind of importance on the strange news. (At least, in my experience.) We and they lack context and have difficulty judging the representativeness or even the veracity of such news items.

Japan is particularly plagued by this, as countless American and British news outlets thrive on repeating stories about strange things that just appall my Japanese friends, who usually identify the reported incident as some kind of fringe activity (if they’ve even heard of it). This is almost never indicated in the reports. (Sometimes news items about Japan are outright false, like the one that circulates periodically about the see-through clothing. Trained on a diet of bizarre news about Japan, readers of English news will apparently swallow anything, no matter how outrageous.)

It’s important to think about whether news items that we hear contradict other knowledge we may have about a culture, and to check with a member of that society if we’re not sure. In general, I don’t think it’s constructive to pass on news articles that just highlight sensational or “weird” events, and I think it contributes to “bitter expat” syndrome when people living outside their home countries spend a lot of time focusing on this kind of thing. (I’m not sure how examining/unpacking weird news reports from the students’ countries/the teaching context/English-speaking countries could be turned into useful activities, but I imagine that has some potential!)

There’s probably a related phenomenon rarely experienced by American readers, but which affects us: Police Blotter Phenomenon. The police blotter is the section that some newspapers still have, in which crimes are briefly reported. Non-Americans aren’t generally literally reading a police blotter, but many of my Japanese clients have heard about crimes in the US on the news and in newspapers. Not having the local knowledge to understand whether those crimes are ones that could possibly affect them if they were living here, they often build up an unrealistic idea of widespread violent crime in the US.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve experienced either of these phenomena in yourself or your students, but it’s just something I was thinking about today.

(As far as I know, I came up with this particular term, but I’m sure I didn’t come up with the idea–there’s probably some better, more scholarly way to say it.)

By the way, I’ve added a new tag: lesson seeds. Lesson seeds are for posts that have just the tiniest seed of a lesson idea in them (as opposed to the lesson plan tag, and the lesson idea tag that I haven’t implemented yet). Sometimes a lesson seed is that’s all that’s needed!

P. S. Thanks to @olafelch and @lynneguist (of separated by a common language) for telling me what some “News of the Weird” sections are called in Germany and the UK!)





11 responses to ““News of the Weird” Phenomenon”

  1. Richard Avatar

    I live in Japan at the moment, and greatly dislike the “only in Japan” type of news story.

    In terms of turning weird stories into a lesson, I’d say ‘proceed with caution’. Weird stories from the students’ country, even mild ones presented with the best of intentions, could be offensive. A lesson based on weird stories from your own has to negotiate between the dangers of reinforcing stereotypes and being excessively preachy.

    Might work with high-level students, though.

    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Japan is definitely quirky, but every place has its quirks–we just are a lot better at filtering out “home quirkiness.”

      And very true: you’d definitely have to navigate that kind of thing with caution, and it would have to be at a high enough level that students could offer criticism and think about context. Very good points!

    2. Clarissa Avatar

      The “Divorce Ceremonies” story that’s going around now is a great example of this. :/ In the article, it actually mentions (for once) that only about 25 couples have actually paid for the service. Meanwhile, if you go to Google and search for “divorce ceremony” -japan you get 34,100 results from the US, Australia, and more, including services (costing hundreds of dollars) for couples as well as rituals for individuals.

  2. Alex Case Avatar

    Great term, as it makes the effect clearer than not having that term to talk about it. I tried explaining why Japan gets more stories than most, which I’d probably write differently now but I still think has some truth in it:


    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Naming things is useful. 🙂

      That’s an interesting aspect of the situation! If you ever feel like addressing it again (if you have more to add or another angle), I’m intrigued!

  3. Alex Case Avatar

    PS, a particular favourite was every single Western newspaper taking the vending machine dress chindogu seriously


    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Yes, that made me facepalm repeatedly!

  4. […] and moral panic in Western audiences fueled by poor wording, cumulative error, and the “news of the weird” phenomenon. (I have an excuse to write this… really… there’s augmented […]

  5. jay@newzjapan Avatar

    Thanks for this article. You are spot on with this. Before living in Japan for 15 years, I remember believing a lot of the weird stories and watching news about all of the “crazes” in Japan.

    The biggest shock I got back in those days was when I accidentally bought Yakisoba bread and bit into it expecting it to be filled with custard or something sweet!

    Maybe we need a Snopes type site for world cultures and international understanding!

    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Thanks, Jay! Yes, something similar happened to me in Taiwan–I bought what I thought was a delicious loaf of cinnamon-raisin bread, but the swirls of “cinnamon” were actually swirls of red bean paste, and the “raisins” were red beans. Later I encountered a bun stuffed with “porksong,” the dried shaved pork that’s something like bonito. Ha! I’m over it now; bring on the savory pastries!

      Cultural-Snopes would be a good idea, though many of the most refutable things are passing nonsense that no one will look up in a couple of years, and some of the other things are pretty debatable even by natives of a culture. But it might make a good wiki-type project with a handful of good editors for each country…

  6. jay@newzjapan Avatar

    Yeah, I think it’s about time I went to a country where I didn’t speak the language and started eating first and asking questions later.

    I’m a big fan of the red beans (if they are the same as the Japanese Azuki) beans.

    The biggest challenge of a Cultural wiki would be that people would rather believe what’s wacky and interesting than the humdrum facts… of course we could throw in some of the wacky facts that happen to be true.

    I had a nice initiation to that when I had lived in Japan for less than 6 months and a friend took me out and fed me raw horse (basashi), whale, and suzume-yaki (yes, sparrow – cooked, served, and eaten whole… bones, beak, and all).

    Sorry for the gastric digression.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *