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Cops and Cthulu Jokes
Spike Lounging
There are a lot of terms I throw around in my martial arts training, ranging over a variety of languages. One of the Japanese ones that I'm particularly fond of is riai. It means (loosely) "situational appropriateness". Doesn't sound very martial, does it? When people talk about training terminology, you want to hear words like "break", "thrust", "kill" and "crush". "Appropriate" just seems like the black sheep in the family.

It is extremely appropriate, though.

One of the reasons I prefer the art I do is that it gives me a variety of options. Sure, if it came right down to it, the applications can be messily fatal... but they don't have to be. I've got just as many tools for handling a drunken uncle as I do an armed assailant. The same principles that maim can be applied to gently control and restrain.

That is one of my issues with some of the harder striking arts, like Okinawan karate-do. Be it drunken uncle or armed assailant, you have two options: hit them or don't. And if you do, serious injury can result... along with the expected legal complications. I continue to remind the people I train with that when you make choices about self defense, you aren't going to explaining yourself to other martial artists afterwards. You will likely be speaking to laymen who only analyze in terms of "injury threatened versus injury inflicted". All those layers of complication you study for survival rarely count for nearly as much in a court room. While you might be able to describe the set of someone's shoulders and why it mandated serious bodily injury, you may not be able to explain that to someone's grandmother on a jury.

Of course, if this was the only application of riai I wanted to discuss, I wouldn't post it on a general journal. Unless my martial arts practice intersects with daily life, I try to keep it off common journals.

I wanted to talk about riai because it goes so much deeper than "to maim or not to maim".

Ever sat down and had a conversation with someone that was a really skilled talker? You find yourself at ease. Information just starts to boil out of you. They is a pleasant, balanced, back-and-forth exchange. Suddenly, you look down at your coffee cup and it's empty. The clock tolls way later than you thought it was, and somehow you feel really good.

People that can do this really get riai well. Of course, the whole idea may be better illustrated by those that don't.

I have to give the classic example on this one, because I have been griping about it for at least a decade, if not longer. As most people know, I am a huge nerd. I love roleplaying games and fantasy novels, and many of my friends share those same loves. If I am sitting down with those friends, we can go on for hours about our common interest. I love that. What bothers me is when I'm at a table with a few of my nerd bretheren, and a few people who aren't so inclined. More than once, I've had the nerd-inclined continue to go on about "nerd only" conversation topics, painfully excluding the uninitiated, who have to sit there and politely nod (and get virtually no enjoyment out of the exchange).

The riai of that type of situation, in my mind, is not to shy away from gaming and fantasy... but not to dwell on it. The riai of any good conversation is to pick topics where everyone can contribute. Skillful talk-show hosts make this an art-form.

I often think about riai in my own life. As a public defender, it is absolutely critical. I often baffle my staff, because with certain clients, I will become as foul-mouthed as the most irate, salty sailor in the history of salty sailors. Then, I will turn around and address a judge in such a properly clean tone that I practically squeak. One of my attorneys looked at me during a particularly dramatic "change back and forth", and asked me, "How the hell do you do that?" I told her what I figured out some time ago: "I addressed each party in the language they spoke fluently. Communication happened." 

I am not particularly skilled at riai. I can do the riai of "Judge versus Client" well, but I get hung up in other places. I have a mode of conversation I use for nerds, another one for lawyers and cops, and a third for martial artists. I do not switch between these "modes" as well as I would like, and I will often use an "appropriateness model" for one that is really suited for another (e.g. - grizzled vetran street cops do not get my Cthulu jokes). I am working on it.

I should point out, too, that riai isn't  the same as manners, either. Manners are a set of rules that you use as a kind of "training wheels" to get by until you have a really good mastery of riai. Riai is extremely fluid and depends on your perception. Manners are a common "baseline" that we can all agree on. The difference between the two is that manners will get you human interactions that don't end in disaster... good use of riai will pull really rich, educational reactions out of virtually everyone that you share your experience with.

If you want an interesting though experiment, consider this "situational appropriateness" in your own life. Where are you good at it, and where are you bad? As I'm fond of saying, paying attention to something is inevitably the first step to improving it.

- Ken


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