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The Decay of Manners
March 12, 2002 6:53 AM   Subscribe

If you would, please, I'd like to politely invite you to consider The Decay Of Manners: "We rush through life in such a hurry these days, that there is little or no time or thought for the refinements and courtesies that in the good old days of our grandparents were considered necessary to good manners." Minnetonka Record, November 21, 1902. Thank you very much for your time.
posted by ColdChef (110 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Here's help. (The "Miss Manners" sidebar link on the left takes you to the column archives.) P.S. in Georgia people still say please and thank you and no sir and yes ma'am. I can't vouch for Atlanta since I haven't lived there for 20 years and anyway it's only surrounded by Georgia, not in Georgia.
posted by jfuller at 7:15 AM on March 12, 2002


Cool link.

Manners only decay if you allow them to. Adding a bit of "slowness" is good for the soul, in my opinion. One of my pet personal issues is letter-writing. With quality paper, a good pen, and a bit of sealing wax for Additional Whimsy when needed, I find myself encouraged to write more. And the impact is tremendous, because so few people do it anymore. I can't imagine going to the store for a sympathy card or a thank-you card - it's so much more personal to put pen to paper, even if it's only two lines.

And like I've said on here (over and over and over), the compelling thing that got me out of New York City and back home to the South was the charm and graciousness of people here. I really enjoy giving tourists on the street a friendly greeting - it almost always leads to a small chat about my city and the best places to go, and both of us walk away feeling good.
posted by ebarker at 7:15 AM on March 12, 2002


Clipped communication is a trust thing: we're talking, so that's better manners out of the box than hitting each other with sharpened metal objects. Did manners evolve from chivalry? Not sure they should be conflated with agism, in any case.
posted by walrus at 7:17 AM on March 12, 2002


P.S. if all you need to know is what to wear at a morning wedding or where the silverware and wine glasses go (or when to use which) go to a used book store and locate an old Emily Post ("old"=not later that WWII.)
posted by jfuller at 7:20 AM on March 12, 2002


It's not the 'please' and 'thank you', that we are lacking in modern society; it's the subtleties.

For example:
When at a restaurant, you should take the butter from the butter-dish and place some on your side plate. Then you must take a piece of the roll and butter that. Not the roll as a whole. It is complicated to do this when eating toast at a diner, (the waitress might become concerned if you ask for a side plate and a butter knife), but I promise you more enjoyment on the whole. (You will also eat less bread and therefore be less fat, because it's really a pain in the ass.)
posted by goneill at 7:21 AM on March 12, 2002


I think the 'Once Drunk' article which follows it is far more entertaining.
posted by milkman at 7:21 AM on March 12, 2002


> And the impact is tremendous, because so few people
> do it anymore.

Concerning congresscreatures and the like, a good, concise, grammatical letter on paper will get read by somebody in the office and has some measureable chance of having an influence on the issue that moved you to write. Email goes directly to /dev/null.
posted by jfuller at 7:25 AM on March 12, 2002


And like I've said on here (over and over and over), the compelling thing that got me out of New York City and back home to the South was the charm and graciousness of people here.

Wow. That's the exact opposite of my experience -- of course i come from the midwest, where instead of charm and grace people are just vanilla and uncommitted. Regardless, i LOVE the up-frontness of NYC. If it's a commercial relationship, it's commerce so tell me what you and get out of my way. Nothing personal, just practical. Frees up the part of me that cares about relationships to care about the relationships that i care about.
posted by milkman at 7:29 AM on March 12, 2002


There is a lot to love about NYC. I still look on it as my home away from home, and visit whenever I can. I was especially proud of how the city behaved after the Bad Stuff last September.

After a week or so there, however, I'm anxious to get back home. Contrast is everything, a bit of yin and yang, a proper balance.
posted by ebarker at 7:32 AM on March 12, 2002


A co-worker of mine who has traveled to the Continent notes that, in France, it is considered extremely rude to go into a store and just start looking around. Instead you are expected to find the proprietor or the sales person, wish them a good morning, exchange pleasantries, and they will show you what you want. It's similar checking into a hotel: you don't just go up to the desk and tell them who you are, you first say "Bonjour" and remark upon the weather, and after some small talk they will get around to checking you in.

It sounds to me like a gigantic pain in the ass to have to do this sort of thing constantly, but it is one reason why the French consider Americans to be rude. Americans consider inefficiency to be rude in and of itself, so have streamlined manners to a great extent.
posted by kindall at 7:32 AM on March 12, 2002


it gets even more extreme when you go to central or subcontinental asia or the middle east...but for me it takes on a much more pleasant tone, perhaps because it is couched in the 'exotic'. Even when you KNOW you are being ripped off, the shopkeeper asks you to have tea, and you talk about many things before you get to the price.
After paying way too much way too many times i finally realized that if you play this game, the bartering floor drops a lot lower.

In France, it's too much like what i'm used to and there's already this presumption of distaste between the cultures and it's just a pain -- maybe if my French were better i'd feel differently, but as it is if i DO try to follow this model, i end up having a nose turned up at me for insulting their language by trying.
posted by milkman at 7:38 AM on March 12, 2002


One thing I've noticed is that people are not very proficient in speaking, specifically in the art of making conversation. How many times have you sat with a group of people you've never met before, all staring at each other like dopes? Lots, I'll bet. The key to making small talk is by being (or at least, feigning) interest in the other person. If you're doing all the talking, you're doing it wrong. In addition, cultivating the ability to get your point across succinctly, directly and (dare I say it?) entertainingly is an asset not to be derided. Far too many are incoherent to the point of irritation. Learn how to tell a story. At the same time, be flexible in your conversation; no scripting (it's painfully obvious); don't be afraid to indulge others who don't speak as well as you; ask people about themselves, their jobs, their lives. Sure, some (most?) may be boring - but some may be very interesting, and it's better than just sitting there, hmm? And listen. It's important.

Letter-writing may be dead as Bentham's bones, but you will speak to people for the rest of your life. It couldn't hurt to learn how to do it better...?
posted by UncleFes at 7:41 AM on March 12, 2002


Apart from New Yorkers, Americans are far politer than most Europeans; though not perhaps as polite as the Japanese or the Canadians.

In my experience, the Spaniards, the Russians and the Northern Irish are the rudest, followed by the French and the Germans. The English aren't really rude - just honest. Even at their most hypocritical you can tell what they really feel. The Scottish are just honest; the Welsh are rude because they're shy. The politest are the Hungarians, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Norwegians. Swedes are blunt; the Finns and Flemish Belgians are brutish; the Swiss are smarmy and...oh how I love generalizations!

Great link, ColdChef. Try substituting "e-mails" for "letters" and it could have been written yesterday. It just shows that each generation thinks the world is lost to good manners and yet people behave considerably better than you'd expect them to.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:42 AM on March 12, 2002


I'm grew up in rural Texas, and now live in Austin. When I moved to New Jersey in 1994, I came to appreciate the subtleties of social graces in Texas. One day in NJ, I was walking with a female coworker when we approached a door. Out of habit I started to step ahead to open it for my coworker, but ended up just tripping over her. In Texas, I suddenly realized, your female companion subtly moves aside for you to open the door.

I also discovered that in New Jersey, "Excuse me" usually means "Get the hell out of my way." I don't know how many times I received a go-to-hell look in NJ for trying to be polite and deferential.

On a somewhat related note, I've discovered that my wife--a born and bred Texan--has no clue how to open a door for someone else. When we're out with the baby stroller, I push and she opens doors. Invariably, if the door opens outwards, instead of pulling it open and then stepping behind it to hold it while I go through, she opens it and steps into the doorway to hold the door behind her, making it difficult to pass. I guess this comes from a lifetime of being the first to go through the door.
posted by tippiedog at 7:45 AM on March 12, 2002


What about the Irish Miguel - and don't give me that northern bolliks.
posted by goneill at 7:51 AM on March 12, 2002


Lots of geographical distinction given in these posts. Why not say simply that things suck today. But there is no going back...what I have seen in mannerly people in many parts of the country (US) is a cover for the decay and hate and rot that is within.
Ok. Manners suck. What now?
posted by Postroad at 7:57 AM on March 12, 2002


Lots of geographical distinction given in these posts. Why not say simply that things suck today. But there is no going back...what I have seen in mannerly people in many parts of the country (US) is a cover for the decay and hate and rot that is within.
Ok. Manners suck. What now?
posted by Postroad at 7:57 AM on March 12, 2002


Lots of geographical distinction given in these posts. Why not say simply that things suck today. But there is no going back...what I have seen in mannerly people in many parts of the country (US) is a cover for the decay and hate and rot that is within.
Ok. Manners suck. What now?
posted by Postroad at 7:57 AM on March 12, 2002


Goneill, the Irish are so charming you can't really tell. I've been to Ireland about seven times in the last ten years and I'm still besotted with every single man, woman, child and bit of it.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:58 AM on March 12, 2002


I have a good friend from Japan and it was fascinating to watch him learn the norms and mores of American culture and how it played with his perception of politeness when he first came to the states. For him, being polite was allowing the other to save face. If we played a game, he was fiercely competitive, but kept the score close enough so that I was not the loser, but a good competitor.

I enjoy writing a good letter, albeit I admittedly make poor practice of it. How I'd love to have the penmanship to make letters looks as nice as they read.
posted by pedantic at 8:01 AM on March 12, 2002


Not hanging around in the nasty bits of town, are you, Miguel? The bit where adults of one faith attempt to firebomb the primary-grade children of the other faith. Feckin' sick eijits.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:03 AM on March 12, 2002


"The real problem is that the average man or woman's entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction, preoccupied with manners, has always thrived!" -- jonathan franzen :)
posted by kliuless at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2002


Hey fff, that's unfair! I clearly distinguished between the Northern Irish(the rudest)and, in my second comment, the Irish proper(meant as the citizens of the Irish Republic). Of course they're feckin' sick eejits! But what has violence got to do with rudeness? I can't see the correlation. Two of the politest societies(Southern U.S. and Japan)are also the most violent.

Oops, now you've got me doing it too. Don't derail, you agent provocateur, you! (Agent provocateur is the polite way of saying troll) ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:11 AM on March 12, 2002


In my experience, the Spaniards, the Russians and the Northern Irish are the rudest...

Key phrase being 'in my experience' - so what you're telling us, Miguel, is that from a Portuguese point of view, cultures X, Y and Z appear rude; from other cultural stand-points, they wouldn't. There's nothing more relative than different cultural concepts of politeness.
posted by rory at 8:15 AM on March 12, 2002


Dear Rory,
I think that this perspective of Miguel's cannot be attirbuted to all of his country(wo)men. It's probalby just his.
posted by goneill at 8:17 AM on March 12, 2002


derailleur!

manners suck :)
posted by kliuless at 8:18 AM on March 12, 2002


I've been receiving (informal) lessons in manners for the past year and a half that I've lived in Austria.

I grew up in Texas, where people are polite in the sense that they say "yes ma'am," open doors for the ladies and avoid delicate topics and direct answers. But they aren't, for the most, part so well mannered. That is, they are relaxed and don't bother too much with the minutiae of etiquette.

Here, however, things are quite different. Place your fork at 8 o'clock on your plate and your knife at 4 o'clock when you're not finished eating. When you are finished eating, place the fork and knife with the tips at 12 o'clock and the ends at 3 or 4 o'clock, the knife edge facing you and the fork between you and the knife.

Always hold your fork in your left hand, cut with the top facing you or to the left, and swivel the fork in so it is facing up when it reaches your mouth. Never move your mouth to the fork - move the fork to your mouth. Do not rest an arm in your lap while you eat - leave both arms in plain view at all times.

And be careful which utensil you use. Some desserts (not always the ones you'd think) require spoons, some require forks; some can be cut with a fork, while others require a knife.

When you order an alcoholic drink, never take a sip until everyone else has their drink and you've toasted each person in your group (looking each in the eye and actually touching glasses).

Always greet people, and use the correct greeting (guten Morgen for morning, Mahlzeit for lunchtime / early afternoon, guten Abend for evening, or grüss Gott whenever).

Always say goodbye when you're departing someone's company (even a restaurant or shop). "Auf wiedersehen" or "auf wiedershauen" will suffice, but a "schönes Wochenende" or "schönen Tag noch" (answered with "Ihnnen auch," or formal "you too") is appreciated.

So yes, they pay attention to a multitude of etiquette minutiae, but they don't even pretend to shy away from direct answers. If you ask if the shirt you're wearing looks bad with the pants you have on, and it does, don't expect anyone to beat around the bush about it like they almost invariably would in Texas...
posted by syzygy at 8:22 AM on March 12, 2002


That's very true, rory. But I would still argue there are standards of uncouthness. Farting and burping and walking in front of women may be polite in certain societies but somehow saying it's only relative masks the fact that politeness is about making others feel comfortable. Or at least not humiliating them.

Polite societies, to me, are those where anyone is made to feel at home, no matter what age, sex, nationality or religion they are. Certain formalities help people get along. Although, of course, you may be right...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:24 AM on March 12, 2002


Syzygy: fascinating stuff. But give me Texas any time. The only exception is when someone has, say, a bit of spinach on their teeth. Then it's only polite to point it out, so that others don't make fun. But speaking honestly about one's shirt and pants? My God, I hope Nelson Mandela never visits Austria!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:29 AM on March 12, 2002


The point of the post, as I understood it, was fairly clear: Just about every generation believes itself to be at the bottom end of a precipitious decline of manners. Correspondingly, it's interesting how many people of any given generation believe themselves to be the last dying proponents of moral decency, emotional freedom, artistic worth, etc.

Come on -- who among us haven't believed that music is crap now or America's just turned into a bunch of strip malls or TV has made us all subliterate, let alone that we've become morally depraved or devoid of manners?

The philosopher Richard Rorty explained this phenomenon by saying that language shifts over time, leaving individuals, as they age, with an obsolete set of terms that inadequately assess the new world they live in. (By "language," he mostly meant language, but not exclusively.) Since we don't know how to describe our new world, it just seems confused and diminished.
posted by argybarg at 8:30 AM on March 12, 2002


Oops, overposting on a thread is also the acme of rudeness. I'm outta here!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:31 AM on March 12, 2002


Thanks for pointing that out, argybarg. One quote I'm always reminded of (and forgive me for not knowing the original source--I've heard it from Paul Harvey, though) "In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these."
posted by ColdChef at 8:39 AM on March 12, 2002


But, it would be nice if people wrote an actual letter every now and then, too. There's nothing like personal mail to lighten your spirit.
posted by ColdChef at 8:40 AM on March 12, 2002


> The philosopher Richard Rorty explained this
> phenomenon by saying that language shifts over time,
> leaving individuals, as they age, with an obsolete set of
> terms

Rorty is over 70. His terms must be obsolete.
posted by jfuller at 8:44 AM on March 12, 2002


I find the following confusing.

I was brought up with English-style manners. You put the tip of the knife at 12:00 and the base of the knife and fork at 6:00 when you are finished, and the tip of the knife at 12:00 and the base of the knife at 4:00 and the base of the fork at 8:00 when you are not done. The knife is on the right, and points in towards the fork. I live in America though, and I have noticed that American's put their knives and forks off to the right when they are finished. There is something overly pretentious when continuing to do the English way, but I feel very comfortable doing that. What should I do?
posted by goneill at 8:44 AM on March 12, 2002


Derailleur? Moi? Quelle horreur!

saying it's only relative masks the fact that politeness is about making others feel comfortable. Or at least not humiliating them.

Yes, but that assumes that one knows exactly what will make those 'others' feel comfortable. In a world where we rub up against 'others' from countless different cultures, we often won't. So even when we think we're being polite, and have every intention of being polit, we sometimes aren't, and the people we're dealing with will consider us 'rude'. And often we won't even know it, because they'll 'politely' refrain from telling us that we're being impolite.
posted by rory at 8:45 AM on March 12, 2002


Dear Miss MeFi,

Is it polite to correct one's own typos, such as 'polit'?

Very sincerely yours,

rory, Esq.
posted by rory at 8:50 AM on March 12, 2002


goneill:You put the tip of the knife at 12:00 and the base of the knife and fork at 6:00 when you are finished, and the tip of the knife at 12:00 and the base of the knife at 4:00 and the base of the fork at 8:00 when you are not done.

Wow. You bend the knife just because you aren't done? Now THAT seems rude to me.
posted by ColdChef at 8:50 AM on March 12, 2002


Miguel: How much violence does Japan have now? I'd been led to believe very little. Are we talking the old militaristic violence, or what? In any case, the South still does have more violence, but personal violence is more prevalent than impersonal. Impersonal violence is more prevalent elsewhere in the U.S. So there's a consolation. If you're going to be shot and killed, at least you'll be killed by someone you know. (Sigh.) It's the whole "culture of honor" thing, which you can find today in urban gangs (hey, don't touch my car/gal, don't dis me) throughout the U.S. They inherited that culture, and brought it to new lows.

I say this as a person who loves southern manners, though, and deplores their being less prevalent nowadays, even while the violence sticks around or reappears in new and varied form.
posted by raysmj at 8:57 AM on March 12, 2002


I thought the point of this posting was that the quote was circa 1902, yet was indistinguishable from a thousand current articles.

The older you get, the more rose-colored your memories of the past become.
posted by glenwood at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2002


I've discovered that my wife--a born and bred Texan--has no clue how to open a door for someone else ... I guess this comes from a lifetime of being the first to go through the door.

tippiedog, just wondering, what does your wife do when she is out with other born and bred Texas damsels and, unaccompanied by a male, they happen upon an entrance or exit? yikes. who opens the door? do they all just stand there? do they wait around until a gentleman appears and bat their lashes until he is moved to rescue them from their predicament?

(and what about her car door? does your wife expect you or another male in the vehicle to jump out and open hers? what if she is the driver? macho enough to operate the entire vehicle but unable, due to social constraints and conditioning, to manage the doorknob?)
posted by jellybuzz at 10:14 AM on March 12, 2002


glenwood: True, but life is more hurried and there is more violence, even if violence has declined nationwide over the past 10 years (the crime rate has been increasing lately, though, or at least last time I checked, and has increased many times over in particular places, such as rural counties). There is, however, SuperTarget, the NCAA tourney, reggae, take-out Mexican food, etc., and you don't have to pick cotton or plow the fields, if'n you don't want to.
posted by raysmj at 10:21 AM on March 12, 2002


The "good old days" never existed.
posted by Rebis at 10:32 AM on March 12, 2002


from the article: We no longer write the good, long, warm, soul-satisfying letters that were written in the old days...And the letters of today show that their writing is a task, not a pleasure.

Actually, I don't agree that this applies today. There is something sweet about receiving a nice hand-written letter, but there is no way I would have written or received the massive number long, thoughtful, written communications I have in my life so far without email.

Anyway. Here in L.A., or at least in West L.A., there is a faux-politeness that reminds me of the faux-politeness of strangers passing each other in the hall at Microsoft. In both situations, youth and casual dress may hide wealth and power (or someone who is going to be rich and powerful soon), so all bets are off in terms of visual cues as to what sort of people might be able to do you harm...and everyone is polite in a mostly generic, ultimately meaningless way.
posted by bingo at 10:37 AM on March 12, 2002


The "good old days" never existed.

Neither does an infinitely progressive or better future, or human perfectability. Next cliche?
posted by raysmj at 10:43 AM on March 12, 2002


Especially in light of Miguel's reference to cultures that are violent yet polite, this conversation begs for mention of Hannibal Lecter, one of my favorite fictional characters, partly because his amorality is so beautifully juxtaposed with what a gentleman he is.

And it always seemed rather obvious to me that the tradition of "letting" women walk first was so that men could look at their asses with more impunity.

My one experience with southern manners was when I was visiting Hattiesburg, MI. The women I passed on the street gave me little smiles that were obviously fake and, I could only infer, compulsory. It kind of made me sick.

Miguel, what about Argentinians and other Latin Americans?
posted by bingo at 10:47 AM on March 12, 2002


Jellybuzz: i think tippiedog's point was that his wife is not good at opening the door for other people which, actually, is something that I've noticed in a few, not many and certainly not all but a few, women I've com across myself.
posted by srw12 at 10:48 AM on March 12, 2002


syzygy: Thanks for your comments about Austria. I lived in Austria about 20 years ago; your comments reminded me of the good ol' days... oh wait.

But, seriously, many languages, such as German (as you mentioned), have a formal and in informal form of address (I understand Japanese has even more complexities), so there's a built-in structure to social interactions that we don't have so much in English-speaking countries: in public, you use the formal address; among people you know well, you use the informal.
posted by tippiedog at 10:48 AM on March 12, 2002


MiguelCardoso nailed it upstream, in that "being polite" is nothing more than making people feel at home, making them feel comfortable. It is a social lubricant that can help any situation.

Is there some dishonesty in it if you tell someone "don't you look nice today?" when they clearly do not? Of course there is. That's the point. It is much more effective in the course of human interaction. All blunt honesty, all the time, and the fabric of society would be rent beyond repair in a day.

Manners. They're free, easy, and come in convenient Take-Home Paks (tm). Kids, get yours today!
posted by ebarker at 11:09 AM on March 12, 2002


MiguelCardoso nailed it upstream, in that "being polite" is nothing more than making people feel at home, making them feel comfortable. It is a social lubricant that can help any situation.

Is there some dishonesty in it if you tell someone "don't you look nice today?" when they clearly do not? Of course there is. That's the point. It is much more effective in the course of human interaction. All blunt honesty, all the time, and the fabric of society would be rent beyond repair in a day.

Manners. They're free, easy, and come in convenient Take-Home Paks (tm). Kids, get yours today!
posted by ebarker at 11:09 AM on March 12, 2002


"Kind sir, you have inadvertently created a double post."

See? Social lubricant.
posted by ebarker at 11:11 AM on March 12, 2002


Bingo:

I remember an old Mad Magazine feature from about 35 years back(!)which was all about how villains were always more polite than the good guys. I forget who drew and wrote it. But on one side you had a Nazi, about to torture someone, going: "I'm afraid, my dear, this may hurt a little..." and, on the other, a G.I.Joe figure bursting in with his machine-gun and saying "Eat lead, you evil bastard!"

About South America I don't know. My Ph.D. supervisor's field(his name is Kenneth Medhurst)is Colombian politics and I remember him remarking on the dissonance between the culture(polite)and the political culture(very violent).

To generalize I'd say that South Americans(apart from Chile and Argentina, with greater English and Italian influences)are generally violent because of the Spanish influence, but formally polite. The Brazilians, because of the Portuguese influence(mixed races, general sweetness and light) are less polite, being care-free and spontaneous, but less violent.

Hey, I'd have flunked Comparative Politics 101 if I'd made half the generalizations I made here. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:20 AM on March 12, 2002


Oh my gosh, someone smiled at bingo in a strictly social/theatrical fashion. Phonies! Sickos! Contemptuous liars and bitches in disguise! To each his own, though. (Sometimes it can be disgusting, and you get tired of not knowing exactly where people are coming from. Even when you're from here! Other times it makes life that much easier. And what you think might be fake absolutely isn't, a lot of the time. It's just a different way of doing things. You still know a deeply felt smile when you see it, regardless. Or do you, even outside of the South? Not until you know someone and even then, you can't ever be 100 percent sure, because you don't share his or her mind. You don't know when people are acting faux contemptuous of everyone either. May be a fashion or style thing.)
posted by raysmj at 11:29 AM on March 12, 2002


I dunno that it's possible to politely bomb hell out of school children, Miguel. But, yes, sorry: I only just now noticed that you'd earlier posted about Northern Ireland. Mea culpa.

Canucks line up nicely. Is that polite? (Polite like sheep, I'd say, but it's still kind of nice to not have to fight.)
posted by five fresh fish at 11:35 AM on March 12, 2002


But dearest Miguel, why impugn the Iberian peninsula's influence? Folks are dreadfully polite over here at the School of the Americas-- "In fact, we became so friendly during our booking, fingerprinting, and photographing that they brought us coffee and Oreo cookies!" (%$&@****!! netiquette. Let's make Short Fuse Day every day. Here's a history of table manners, in the event any are still proud to be polite.)
posted by sheauga at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2002


raysmj: I was bothered that there was a custom that made those girls feel compelled to smile; I did not suspect them of being subversive agents from the planet Kleptor.
posted by bingo at 11:50 AM on March 12, 2002


One monitor screen, ruined; one keyboard, recoverable; amounting to $580, politely billed to sheauga.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:52 AM on March 12, 2002


A debt of honor, owed with proper Latin compliments, flattery, and flirting. "Dondequiera que pases, brotan flores." (Wherever you go, flowers spring up.) Alas, it doesn't seem to translate.
posted by sheauga at 12:05 PM on March 12, 2002


Bingo - If you were in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (rather than Michigan, as your post indicates), then you have to understand that custom dictates that any eye contact with a stranger must be followed by a greeting, however cursory. You probably noticed the men giving you small nods when you met their gaze. Then again, you may not have been looking at the men, and the women might have wondered why some stranger was looking them in the eye.
posted by chino at 12:43 PM on March 12, 2002


Or more threadishly: In the old days, you see, one only looked one's acquaintances in the eye. Things aren't like that nowadays.
posted by chino at 12:46 PM on March 12, 2002


bingo: A convention bothered you so much it made you "sick?" What the hell? Why did it make you quote-unquote sick unless you thought something gag-worthy was going on there? Do you get sick at people being nice to you after buying something from a store? That's a convention, and not just connected to cash, but moreso than the convention of southern women smiling at you on the street for no good reason.
posted by raysmj at 12:57 PM on March 12, 2002


Austria 20 years ago-- you always looked people in the eye, shook hands, said your name, and smiled! Now I can't do this comfortably any more, unless it's a business situation.

bingo: an old-fashioned mash note, e-mailed from Kleptor:
"Hi bingo! Wouldn't it be great if we could go back to the days when all girls were supposed to do was giggle and smile? It's beautiful spring weather today, and our young women find their thoughts drifting not towards love, but towards ... "cloning!" How can this be? On Planet Kleptor, in plain sight amidst the gingham and teddy bears of the Midwest, where adorable children still take piano lessons, recite the Gettysburg Address, and study George Washington's "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." O, but alas! Even the traditional graciousness and hospitality of Kleptor may not survive the combined onslaughts of Unix, feminism, and Title Nine GRRLS Sports. Our southern cousins, direct descendants from the landing pads at Nazca, now refer to anyone with incomprehensible eccentricities as a "Martiano" or Martian. Our multiculturalism, a mix of Midwestern informality, West Coast political correctness, Swedish directness, a Northern European sense of irony, and a Latin sense of honor, is proving a mixed blessing. The population is declining, there's a shortage of calm, unexcitable Canadian husbands, nobody remembers how to flirt, and everyone's getting touchy about minor infractions of individually preferred cultural norms. In short, that's why we've invited some wacky Brits from the "Campaign for Courtesy" to help throw an annual "Short Fuse Day," where we all stop to reconsider before hitting the "send" key or telling others exactly what we think. That's Kleptor- what's your planet like?"
posted by sheauga at 3:22 PM on March 12, 2002


sheagua: I think that's very funny, and honestly, I'm not sure if you mean it as an attack on what I said, or if you're agreeing with me, or what.

chino: Please explain the Michigan reference; I've been to Michigan, and I don't know what you mean. In terms of the southern customs regarding eye contact, you've educated me. So, should I not have looked them in the eye?

raysmj: Actually, yeah, it does bother me when I'm in a store and the employees put on a show of being nice when we both know they couldn't give a shit. Compulsory and insincere courtesy bothers me a lot.
posted by bingo at 3:55 PM on March 12, 2002


chino: In Norway, you don't look into the eyes of strangers, nor do you greet them. Not even when you've been out on a hiking trail, lost from all humanity for at least forty-five minutes, and happen across a jogger going the other way. Don't look. Don't speak. Don't smile.

It was odd, especially in contrast to Canada. Up at my local cross-country track, you greet everyone. Even though you know you're going to see at least 300 people that day, and will wear your vocal cords out doing it... :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:05 PM on March 12, 2002


chino: In Norway, you don't look into the eyes of strangers, nor do you greet them. Not even when you've been out on a hiking trail, lost from all humanity for at least forty-five minutes, and happen across a jogger going the other way. Don't look. Don't speak. Don't smile.

It was odd, especially in contrast to Canada. Up at my local cross-country track, you greet everyone. Even though you know you're going to see at least 300 people that day, and will wear your vocal cords out doing it... :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:06 PM on March 12, 2002


chino: In Norway, you don't look into the eyes of strangers, nor do you greet them. Not even when you've been out on a hiking trail, lost from all humanity for at least forty-five minutes, and happen across a jogger going the other way. Don't look. Don't speak. Don't smile.

It was odd, especially in contrast to Canada. Up at my local cross-country track, you greet everyone. Even though you know you're going to see at least 300 people that day, and will wear your vocal cords out doing it... :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:09 PM on March 12, 2002


Working in sales, to a degree is all about manners. One of the first things we're taught is to greet with a handshake, ask permission to ask questions and address all adults as "sir" or "ma'am" until told otherwise. With strangers, the same rules should apply whether you're talking to a CEO or a Bowery Bum.

That said, the details of ettiquete don't seem all that important as long as the spirit is met. Which fork to use and all that seems kind of irrelevant in an age when most meals are eaten out of microwave trays, but making sure everyone feels welcome does not.

Farting and burping....in front of women may be polite in certain societies

Ehhh...among freinds it's polite in any society. Women contain just as much gas as men and it's sexist to assume any different. Me and my freinds, male and female burp and fart in front of eachother all the time. It's our way of saying we're so comfortable with eachother that we just don't care.
I would not, however, advise this at a formal affair, should I ever attend one.
posted by jonmc at 4:10 PM on March 12, 2002


GAH!!!!!!

Sorry. MeFi reported an error back to me, and I thought that indicated the post "didn't take."

Gosh, how rude.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:26 PM on March 12, 2002


bingo: That doesn't make much of any sense at all. One hint, though. Next time someone smiles at you in, say, Hattiesburg, it's OK to look someone in the eye. Just don't make it a glare (which you shouldn't do anywhere), and try to smile back if they do smile. Then relax, get used to it, and after a while it'll become an almost automatic thing. It's not "insincere," because it's not a put-on. It's a custom, a social convention. That's all it is. And a rather sweet and graceful one, all in all. It's invariably the first thing I've noticed after time away here, and I fall right back into the routine.
posted by raysmj at 4:38 PM on March 12, 2002


How interesting. Here you must look at a stranger's(or anyone's) eyes all the time, lest you be thought condescending or sniffy. People who are uncomfortable with this apologize beforehand, explaining it away as a tic.
Besides, it's only natural to look into someone's eyes - windows of the soul and all that.

Honestly. no wonder people give us strange looks and say "what you staring at, buster?" when we travel to colder climates. Specially NYC. Dammit, perhaps we're the ones being rude...?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:43 PM on March 12, 2002


raysmj: What did I say that doesn't make any kind of sense at all?

As for your last comment...if something is a custom, and that custom is so deeply ingrained that people feel compelled to do it, then they are going to at times do it when they don't want to do it, and that would make it insincere. That's what insincere means. And yes, that annoys me. It's transparent. When someone smiles at me, and they don't want to be smiling at me, I can usually tell, and I would prefer if they would relax and just be themselves.
posted by bingo at 5:03 PM on March 12, 2002


bingo: That it makes you sick, like you're Bob Dylan in "Positively 4th Street," or you think all customs are "insincere." Insincere implies being something you're not, or hypocritical, deceitful, etc., and maybe affected, which customs aren't. They're simply customary. "Insincere" implies a very specific type of thing, an attitude or pose, and not being customary. Otherwise, you're so buying into the whole cult of authenticity bit, which is a much-traveled, dreary road and a dead end at that.
posted by raysmj at 6:20 PM on March 12, 2002


Please explain the Michigan reference; I've been to Michigan, and I don't know what you mean.

Well, you said you were in Hattiesburg, MI, but as far as I know there is not actually a Hattiesburg in Michigan.
posted by kindall at 6:28 PM on March 12, 2002


Oh, and regional or national customs or unconscious heed paid to them make up a part of what a person is, just as throwing them off makes up a part of what a person becomes (or, as is usually the case, what a person has been - a nonconformist, or contrarian, etc.). In either case, you're being "yourself," whatever the mask you present as "yourself" to the world may be.
posted by raysmj at 6:34 PM on March 12, 2002


MI: Michigan
MS: Mississipi
MA: Massachussets
MO: Missouri
MN: Montana
ME: Maine (??)
posted by milkman at 7:21 PM on March 12, 2002


Oh, one more: What I was getting at with the "smiling back" thing was to show how this particular custom works. Someone smiling at you, perhaps when not even feeling well, is engaging in this convention or custom or ritual, and trying to get you to play along. Why does it keep going? Because when done well, the custom can change a person's mood very quickly, either that of the initiator or the person playing along. Sort of like in the theater or movies (let's not touch sincerity there - and it's just acting anyhow), which can most definitely be mood-altering. You should know this. You're a screenwriter, right?
posted by raysmj at 7:27 PM on March 12, 2002


There are a couple of big differences between movies and real life, other than the obvious, in this context. One, most people are not as good at faking an emotion as professional actors are. Two, my watching actors fake an emotion successfully doesn't necessarily give me the same emotion.

In terms of the first comment of your last three, raysmj, I'm not saying that customs themselves are insincere; that would be a bit abstract. I'm saying that the customs under discussion compel people to act in an insincere way.

I just reviewed the lyrics to "Positively 4th Street," and while I would never pretend to be able to compose a song like that, I think that yes, it's a pretty good illustration of what I'm saying here.

You're concerned that I'm "buying into the whole cult of authenticity bit," which strikes me as extremely cynical and strange. Is there really something wrong with my desiring as much authenticity as possible in my interactions with other people?

Customs you grow up with are indeed a part of you, but often I believe they are a bad part of you that should be cut away or pummelled into dust if possible, or at least examined and compensated for, especially if they're preventing you from being able to really communicate in a meaningful way.

And I stand duly corrected on the abbreviations for Mississippi and Michigan.
posted by bingo at 9:57 PM on March 12, 2002


Yes, bingo, you're asking for an "authenticity" that leads to the whole "be real" thing, which leads to an entirely different sort of phoniness of its own, all too often. Or asking people to give up something that they really can't shed off, come to think of it, that'll come up when they least expect it. What I thnk you should expect of people is individuation, and not some "let's be real here" type of supposed purity, with a standard set by yourself, or authenticity. (The reason I mention Dylan there was - Bob was a white middle-class guy from Minnesota, still is one actually, singing songs to the music of southern farm workers and prisoners. That wasn't the slightest bit authentic. And the world's all the better for it, I think. He communicated in a really meaningful way, y'know.)
posted by raysmj at 5:00 AM on March 13, 2002


Oh, and yes, plenty of southern women, and men, could stand some self-examination. Lord knows they could, although the place is changing all the time. (Hattiesburg in particular is now probably indistinguishable, in its income and social indicator stats, from any place in middle America, probably better off actually.) That's the best you can hope for or should wish for, from anyone. But I know from experience that the women who are the self-examining type will still do the smiley thing later. Methinks that's why you're post struck me as almost colonialist in character. As in, You know what's better for them. You don't.
posted by raysmj at 5:18 AM on March 13, 2002


On the women in Hattiesburg: I would refer you to Erving Goffman's idea of "civil inattention" (scroll down) as a basic fact of interaction in public with other people. It's not phony, it's part of a complicated negotiation of privacy and sociability in a public place, with some acknowledgment that you're inhabiting the same social world as other people, even strangers (the glance, the brief smile or nod) balanced against the ethic of not invading their privacy (not turning the glance into a stare or the smile into a wave, handshake or forced verbal interaction. Different places, times or people have slightly different conventions for doing it, and slightly different ideas of when it's required, and this leads to much misunderstanding. (My wife is always saying hi to strangers, and it drives me crazy--"Did you know her? Why are you saying hi to her?")

Bingo's griping reminds of of people who complain when someone says "how are you?" but don't actually wait for the answer. It's so insincere...no, it's what Malinowski called "phatic communion"--a way of verbally acknowledging your relationship without actually requiring much communication. It's not a bad thing, it's just a thing--unless, as raysmj suggests, you insist that words always be used in a literally true way in order to be "authentic." ("Autistic" is more like it. You can do that, but then you become an annnoying weirdo who is shunned by all his or her friends for not knowing how to act.)
posted by rodii at 5:40 AM on March 13, 2002


Really interesting insights in this thread. And I had to share this:

6 pm Tuesday. At client's office helping a colleague of hers with some stuff. Finished, going to a Spoleto rehearsal, have to walk down to car to get allergy pill (it's pollen time here in the South).

Out the door, down N. Market, south on East Bay Street, tourists milling, skies overcast, mid 70's, left on Vendue Range, down to Waterfront Park, right on Prioleau, and there is my prey at the corner of Prioleau and Exchange.

Husband and wife, mid 60's, looking at map and pointing. I remember this thread, smile, make eye contact, "Welcome to Charleston, is there anything I can help you find?" Instant smiles from them. We had a great conversation about places to go, some history, where to go eat, features of the historic district, where the aquarium is, etc., etc. Turns out he's a physician from Montreal, they're about to move down here next year. Business card exchange. They head east on Exchange St., I head west to my car, and I hear her say, "What a nice young man, everyone is so polite here, I can't wait to move."

After rehearsal, a group of us got together and puttered about in my kitchen cooking, and I brought the subject up. 11 people in the room, from six states and three countries (the US, the UK, and Italy), and it was an interesting discussion, the highly unscientific results of which were that manners are indeed basic social lubrication, and much better than brute honesty. Seeing how these types of encounters are by their very nature superficial, this behavior serves the purpose of smoothing out the encounter. Friend of mine said, "Of course you smile and act polite, it's the only civilized thing to do, but a quick nod hello or a passing word or a smile from a shopkeeper does not commit you to a lifelong relationship. Engage in the pleasantries and move on."

Marjabelle Young Stewart, who has been in the etiquette business a long time, compiles a list each year of the best mannered cities in the US. My city has been number 1 the last eight years. This year, there was a tie. Know who the other city was? New York City. I found that charming in and of itself, seeing my two favorite cities tied.
posted by ebarker at 6:57 AM on March 13, 2002 [1 favorite]


i know it's not the polite thing to say, but sympathy vote? charleston is really nice, btw. great chick-fil-a's :)

when someone says "how are you?" but don't actually wait for the answer.

yeah, it's like those wassup and how are you doing commercials. i think they should do a 'sup mang one.
posted by kliuless at 7:36 AM on March 13, 2002


MN: Minnesota
MT: Montana
posted by liam at 8:26 AM on March 13, 2002


MC: MiguelCardoso
posted by rodii at 8:58 AM on March 13, 2002


raysmj:

Are you being sarcastic when you say that that the world is a better place for "Positively 4th Street," or that Dylan communicated in a meaningful way?

Yes, bingo, you're asking for an "authenticity" that leads to the whole "be real" thing, which leads to an entirely different sort of phoniness of its own, all too often.

What can I say, man. If I'm trapped into phoniness either way, the one I choose is the "whole 'be real' thing." I like the sound of that, actually. "Yeah, that bingo, he's into that whole thing about 'being real.'" I can live with that.

Or asking people to give up something that they really can't shed off, come to think of it, that'll come up when they least expect it.

You're right about this, of course. The fact that the unconscious adherence to certain customs bothers me, is not in itself going to change the customs, and it's not fair for me to expect people who were raised in a certain way to make the self-examination you refer to a major priority in their lives. However, such gestures as people smiling at me on the street when it's clear they would rather not, or people asking how I am when it's clear they don't care and in fact wish they didn't feel compelled to ask...I just want to stop such people and say "You know what, next time, don't worry about it. Just go on about your business; you're wasting moments of your own time, and draining your own energy, pretending you care about me when you don't, and I want you to know that the effort is completely lost on me, so forget it." There's a scene in the mediocre British comedy Human Traffic where a guy fantasizes about such a conversation, and I could really relate. Now, I'm not saying that I say such things myself...

...well, okay, I can remember doing it once, with someone who obviously disliked me rather strongly, but because of various social connections between us, felt obligated to make a show of friendliness every time we met. At one point when we were alone in an elevator, I said "Look, this is stupid. We don't like each other. We have some of the same friends. It's not a big deal. Why don't you stop pretending like you're glad to see me, and I'll stop feeling awkward about how to respond to your insincere greetings." She, of course, denied that I had described the situation accurately, because that, too, was obligatory for her. But after that, we barely spoke, and I can't speak for her, but I felt much better about the situation.

I don't pretend to have a big universal solution that is going to help everybody get along. But then, I think that's part of the issue here, for me. I don't feel like it's my responsibility to help everybody get along. I didn't sign the social contract you seem to be talking about. I read most of rodii's link from above. From the summary at the top (I did read further):

What seems crucial in this overall analysis of discourse in public is 'fitting in'. Too much or too little carries meaning.

See, I just disagree with this whole idea. I can respect why people have it, but I just can't get into it. I'm not about "fitting in." I like sacrificing "fitting in" in favor of what he refers to as "meaning." That's how I am.

For more on how I see this type of thing, I refer you to the admittedly dauntingly large but nonetheless brilliant novel Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Or, for a more pared-down and simplistic parable-like take, there's The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

And now gentlemen, if you will forgive me, I must to work.
posted by bingo at 9:31 AM on March 13, 2002


Bingo: You keep bringing up Stuff of Interest, I had completely forgotten (or in redneck: "ah plum fergot") about the Kesey novel. I don't think you and I will ever see eye-to-eye on this, but I thank you for the thought-provoking commentary.

I will point out, however, that you miss one of the side benefits of Being Very Mannerly, and that is the delicious power of The Snub. The force of Cutting Someone To Shreds in public by deliberately not being polite.

T'is an ugly thing to behold, but also necessary on rare occasions.
posted by ebarker at 11:27 AM on March 13, 2002


"The Snub," pretty much sums up the Dylan song I was referencing in an earlier bingo note, only it's not nearly as subtle. It's startling because it's sharply rude, even mean. But it's also about a particular person and a specific sector of the world (surely the upper echelons of the folk world, one obsessed with authenticity). Take away the customs, and you don't have as powerful of a song. He's being a very serious crank there, a hipster who wants to set himself apart, but he seems to be really upset and getting it all out at once. Thing is, though, that you can only take so much of that. It can't work all the time. (I've always thought he's aiming some barbs at himself in ". . . 4th St.," too, and after enough listens you start to think of the tone as more sad than pissed off.)

Anyway, yeah, I was talking about Dylan the artist and not a particular song. He absolutely adopts an inauthentic persona. It's an act. "I stayed in Mississippi a day too long." Sure, Bob. You stayed at your smashing permanent residence in Malibu a bit too long, maybe, or the tour bus, but not Mississippi, 'cept in your head, and from an FSA photo circa 1934. And I say this as one who probably has ancestors he quote-unquote stole from. Grandparents were tenant farmers here, probably played the old-time country he likes. I could be damned bitter about this! One of the land of the traditional bluesmen in Miss., though, James "Son" Thomas, once told me he didn't go for the whole "stealing" bit, since everyone he knew stole from everyone else. An example, given by him: Whoever thought up, "Dah-dah-dah-dah dum," shoulda been a millionaire.

But that's a whole 'nother story.
posted by raysmj at 12:01 PM on March 13, 2002


bingo: In talking about self-examination, I was not referring to self-examination of one's use of customs, but examination of values, morals, ethics, learning something about your own head and about other cultures and ways of thinking and knowing, etc. I was talking about a striving toward self-actualization, which few people of any society do. But nevertheless . . . Trying to change customary behavior can be like trying to change an accent, intentionally. There's no good reason for it, particularly, except for trying to fit into another culture.
posted by raysmj at 12:12 PM on March 13, 2002


See, I just disagree with this whole idea. I can respect why people have it, but I just can't get into it. I'm not about "fitting in." I like sacrificing "fitting in" in favor of what he refers to as "meaning." That's how I am.

You big old rebel you. There's a difference between deciding whether or not to follow prescriptive/restrictive rules of conduct--like, which fork to eat with--and understanding and using the rules people use to understand each other's behavior. You're not "sacrificing" fitting in for meaning, you're creating meaning in how you do or don't follow the rules. If you, say, look someone in the eye at a time they consider inappropriate, their response isn't "oh, what a fascinasting, unconventional individual bingo is," it's "why is that guy glaring at me? What did I do?"

The example of the women in Hattiesburg is the same thing, only now you're the interpreter of their behavior. Your original claim was that they were somehow phony or insincere because they smiled at you. But it doesn't work that way. You were using your interpretive conventions--say, "a smile has personal meaning"--to make sense of their behavior, but their behavior wasn't based on those conventions. Essentially, you were in a community of people who speak a different language, and calling them phony because their words don't make sense in English.
posted by rodii at 2:09 PM on March 13, 2002


Who would have guessed that a thread about good manners would have created such "spirited" conversation?
posted by ColdChef at 4:13 PM on March 13, 2002


Golly me, such rudeness!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:58 PM on March 13, 2002


I like what Bingo has to say about this because i am always yearning for things to MEAN things. i don't know if that's an 'authenticity' hangup as much as an honest crisis about how to navigate my relationship to the world.
If we are always asking people how they are, how do we then REALLY ask people how they are when we actually mean it?

"How are you? I mean, really?" *intense eye contact and hand squeeze* "how are you?" blech. That carries its own set of gross connotation.

I spend way too much of my life these days in an office environment where i am the only person who is capable of doing a whole bunch of tasks for a whole bunch of people. i am in charge of prioritizing these tasks based on a whole bunch of factors. My dialogue with the various people who make these requests (who are not my bosses, incidentally) tends to be like this
A) "Milkman, is it possible to get this proofed, printed and shipped by wednesday?"
"Sure. It will be done by wednesday."
B) "Milkman, I need to get this HTML document reformatted into Pagemaker, checked against the client's company style sheet and translated to Spanish. Can we do that by 5:00?"
"No way. Maybe by two weeks from Friday if everything else stays on schedule."
I was taken aside and given a formal reprimand because i was "being too straightforward." Apparently i was expected to say something like, "Gosh, Jerry, I realize that is for a very important client of yours and you've got a big commision riding on it, but i just don't think i can get it done for you with my current workload. If there is anything else i can help you with in order to facilitate communicating that to the client, you let me know, and if you want to put it into my queue for the end of the month, I guaruntee that it will be ready on time, and with no mistakes."
That is a paraphrase, but really not an exaggeration from what was suggested to me.
Cummon. It's a work relationship. I have a reputation of working hard. If i wasted my time having those inane dialogues with all of my coworkers, i'd never get anything done at all.
I was also told that it had come to my boss's attention that every time the HR dweeb comes by and asks me how everything is going, i say "You don't pay me enough for my job, and if it wasn't for the terrible job market there would be nothing keeping me here" like a robot. That's true, incidentally. I was repremanded for saying it. What's the point of the HR guy asking me how things are going if i'm not allowed to tell him honestly what i think about my work situation?

These are just a couple of examples. I don't want to be involved in (even synthetic or automatic) personal relationships with everyone i see on the street because it devalues my real relationships. It makes the words i use and the facial expressions i make and the genuine concern i express for those few people in my life with whom i actually have some mutual interest seem less valuable and less real. I could give a shit about the authenticity of my relationship with the guy at the coffee counter. But i guard the authenticity of my relationship with friends lovers and family very highly.

Incidentally, Bob Dylan is specifically working in a folk tradition which is full of fictional first person narratives. It's one of the biggest idioms of the form. I don't think he begins to be pretending that he was a Mississipi farmer any more than Woody Guthrie was pretending to be Tom Joad.
posted by milkman at 5:59 PM on March 13, 2002


amen, milkman!

ebarker: I will point out, however, that you miss one of the side benefits of Being Very Mannerly, and that is the delicious power of The Snub. The force of Cutting Someone To Shreds in public by deliberately not being polite.

Yes, but being the way I am pretty much makes me immune to the power of the Snub as a recipient. It's likely that the well-mannered person who "snubs" me in public is going to be a lot more uncomfortable doing so than I will be receiving the snub. In such cases it's unlikely I'll face the floor and shuffle out of the room in shame; it's more likely that I'll be relieved that an open and direct conversation on a point of conflict is finally taking place. And, honestly, my experience is that when people know you're like that, they don't "snub" you very often.

raysmj, you obviously know a lot more about Dylan than I do, so I can't really argue the analogy. All I can say is that whenever I heard that song in the past, I always took the lyrics at face value, thought it sounded like the kind of thing I would say, and even applied some of it to situations in my own life. But maybe I was misinterpreting it; I don't know. In terms of the other stuff...

Trying to change customary behavior can be like trying to change an accent, intentionally. There's no good reason for it, particularly, except for trying to fit into another culture.

I agree that changing customs, especially the customs of other people, is a difficult task and generally a bad idea. However, I do not think that all customs are neutral in terms of their positive or negative effects on people, societies, politics, etc. Of course, this is relative, sorry to get abstract for a second, to what you think the meaning of life is, and what the goals of a society ought to be, if any. In some countries, like Japan and Korea, there is a custom of respecting one's elders to the point that in many cases you're not supposed to correct someone older than, or "superior" to yourself, even if there's no doubt that they're wrong, even if there is an important issue at hand (some MeFi poster who lives in Korea posted an extensive comment about this a while ago, but I can't find it). I do not fancy myself a crusader whose mission it is to rid the world of all its silly customs. But I do have the right to be bothered by, and to refuse to participate in, the ones that I think are ridiculous, or simply annoying.

rodii: If you, say, look someone in the eye at a time they consider inappropriate, their response isn't "oh, what a fascinasting, unconventional individual bingo is," it's "why is that guy glaring at me? What did I do?"

Yes, of course I'm aware of that. Too bad. It's either that, or I can be the one who's uncomfortable with their way of doing things. Whether or not I jump through the hoop depends on how I feel at the time and what, if anything, I want from the situation.

You were using your interpretive conventions--say, "a smile has personal meaning"--to make sense of their behavior, but their behavior wasn't based on those conventions.

I disagree. A smile when given naturally does have personal meaning. True, it doesn't have that meaning if it's given because of a custom that says it should be. But the smile itself is not an arbitrary sign in this "language." It was obviously chosen because it is meant to remind the recipient of what smiles mean when they are sincere. Otherwise, the custom might be something like hopping up and down while spinning in a circle. And, being on the recieving end of that, I feel like a sort of mass hallucination is going on, and I refuse to be a part of it. I will smile when I have something to smile about. If you smile at me, and you have nothing to smile at me about, I can probably tell, and I'm annoyed. The fact that you're doing it because your mommy and daddy told you to just doesn't cut it for me. We are not (I believe) here on this planet to run around like little ants following rules and doing what we are told, just because that's the way things are.

Essentially, you were in a community of people who speak a different language, and calling them phony because their words don't make sense in English.

If we go with the language analogy, I would have to modify it and say that I think their language is a poorly developed pidgin dialect, and that there is another language that we both understand anyway, even though it might require a little more thinking outside the box, and that is the language that I am going to speak in, in most cases.
posted by bingo at 8:27 PM on March 13, 2002


. The fact that you're doing it because your mommy and daddy told you to just doesn't cut it for me.

Nice to end on a totally condescending note, or with one. Most people learn social norms by, y'know, living and not necessarily from "mommy and daddy." The rest doesn't deserve a response. Good discussion going for a long time, though. So thanks, for up to the last one.
posted by raysmj at 8:38 PM on March 13, 2002


OK, one more: The thing about Japanese customs could be changed, maybe, only with some legislation that forces a change in social class or years of media attention, etc. (I just bet that there's ways around that, though.) You can't scream at people and say, "Let it go!" I'm thinking here of racial mores of the older South, elaborate manners worked into that and maybe changed to fit slavery and then Jim Crow laws, etc. I can't say for certain. (Curiously, these were often used by blacks in a highly tactical, near-devious way - and influenced whites in return; a lot of southern manners are very much African-American). It all tends to go away with the generations, and the passing of that particular system. In this case, though, you're talking about a convention that's standard in others, just gone about in a different fashion and totally neutral, and on the whole rather egalitarian in its application.

Still no response to "mommy and daddy" and the pigdin bit, though.
posted by raysmj at 9:00 PM on March 13, 2002


Correction of myself: You'd change the system first. The problem with Jim Crow manners wasn't the manners themselves. It was the Jim Crow system. You'd have been barking up the wrong tree there, if you yelled about the manners first. I think I can say with some certainty that you're talking a tie-in with culture in the Japanese and Korean customs too.
posted by raysmj at 9:09 PM on March 13, 2002


So the comments I took time and energy to write for the benefit of an honest discussion are not worth your response, but the insincere smile of a stranger on the street is worth mine?

And the condescension is in your imagination. I have no idea what your mommy and daddy taught you.
posted by bingo at 1:30 AM on March 14, 2002


According to Hesoid, Socrates, Seneca, and Peter the Hermit, the problem here is kids these days. (Bottom of the page).
posted by MRYeatts at 5:51 AM on March 14, 2002


Thanks, MrYeatts.

For anyone too lazy to click: (I know how lazy you kids are)

Quotes on Teengagers

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words...When I was young, we were taught to be discret and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint." Hesiod, 800 B.C.

"The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in places of exercise. Children are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties [food] at the table, cross their legs and tyrannise their teachers." Socrates, 399 B.C.

"Our young men have grown slothful. There is not a single honourable occupation for which they will toil night and day. They sing and dance and grow effeminate and curl their hair and learn womanish tricks of speech; They are as languid as women and deck themselves out with unbecoming ornaments. With out strength, without energy, they add nothing during life to the gifts with which they were born - then they complain of their lot." Seneca, C.1. A.D.

"The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence [respect] for their parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint; They talk as if they alone know everything and what passes for wisdom in us foolishness in them. As for the girls, they are foolish and immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress." Peter the Hermit, 1083

posted by ColdChef at 6:02 AM on March 14, 2002 [2 favorites]


behave!
posted by kliuless at 7:35 AM on March 14, 2002


Bingo: If you call someone's customs akin to "pigdin English" because you're not familiar with them, you're being condescending. Usually you'd just ask what's up first, and try to come to some understanding. And "mommy and daddy" is usually said with a sneer, or at least a smirk, however slight. It's a child-like way of talking.
posted by raysmj at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2002


Or pidgin English, rather, which generally means "broken English" of the type used by, say, immigrants to talk with native speakers or a combo language used by people of different native tongues to speak to one other. The analogy was not only wrong, but sort of insulting. As in, You're coming into this culture, they don't do things like you do, so they're obviously doing something akin to speaking pidgin. Consequently, there's condescension and cultural superiority oozing from the note, whether you realized it or not. And if you didn't mean that, please be careful. Be self-critical yourself, y'know?
posted by raysmj at 8:36 AM on March 14, 2002


Oh, and the more close-to-appropriate word for the conventions we're talking about would be "creole" anyway, which is fully formed, but not standard as compared to the original sources. The word more formally applies to descedants with mixed French or Spanish and West Indian heritage. But all Americans are mixed breed, as it were.
posted by raysmj at 8:47 AM on March 14, 2002


raysmj: Well, like I said, I don't think that all customs are created equally. It's not just a matter of my not being familiar with them; I admitted I wasn't; I admitted it when I was corrected about the intent behind them; I still have the right to think they're ridiculous, and to react to them how I please. The pidgin English thing emerged from someone's comparison of customs to languages, and that's my reformulation of the analogy to express how I see things. The mommy and daddy remark is of course inherently representative of a childlike way of talking, as those are the quintessential childhood words; my use of them was meant to suggest not my own childish attitude, but the childish attitude of people who blindly follow the guidance of "the authority" in general, whether it be mommy and daddy (the most obvious and primal example) or what the schoolteacher said, or the boss, or the bible, or the President, or the popular kids at school, or the designers of advertisements, or whoever.

I think that this conversation about courtesy has taken an interesting turn in terms of the way we each see courtesy or lack thereof as exemplified in the discussion itself. I'm not trying to be impolite or condescending, yet my opinion involves a judgement of certain customs, and you apparently find that judgement to be offensive. I really don't know what to do about it...my intention is not to insult you personally, but I'm not going to be dishonest about my feelings on this subject just to make you feel better. Perhaps you think that I should? Not a rhetorical question; maybe this is at the heart of our difference of opinion on the subject itself.
posted by bingo at 8:53 AM on March 14, 2002


but the childish attitude of people who blindly follow the guidance of "the authority"

Which you by no means proved was the case here, or why it's dangerous in some fascistic/repressive sort of way. And there's no Central Southern Headquarters regardless. It's culture, for cryin' out loud.
posted by raysmj at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2002


But no, you don't have the right to go around saying a culture is "phony" just because you don't understand it. You have an obligation as a human being among equals, who sees every individual as having dignity and worth, to try to understand where he or she is coming from first. Always. Then you have the right to be annoyed, and maybe try to learn exactly what's making you so annoyed or the source of it, and if it's worth getting worked up over or changing. Y'know, a lot of cultures aren't as into space as our own, or into not invading one another's "space." They probably find our obsession with space annoying, at least until being here for a bit. Maybe they don't feel they can communicate very well from a distance, that it keeps them from being "honest." In our use of language Americans don't find much use for the subjective and indirect either. Does this mean we're right and they're wrong, especially when we're doing so much better economically than them? No, not necessarily. The problems may be more linked to organization and participation, and openness to innovation, than any of that. Capitalism is funny. It finds a use for everything a culture can throw at it, if only the trust and rules and organizational ability, etc., are there.

Similarly, are cultures where people are much less confrontational and more agreeable and where people are more deferential to authority (since you brought that up) always more demonstrably inferior? I'm not sure. Many of the latter take better care of the needs of the whole of society, and particularly their needy and sick, than the U.S. does or ever has. Methinks the answer is that both community-centered and individualistic socities have their faults. The goal is having some sense of both community and individuation, and not individualism for its own sake. But no one's found that near-perfect balance yet.
posted by raysmj at 10:01 AM on March 14, 2002


The goal is having some sense of both community and individuation, and not individualism for its own sake. But no one's found that near-perfect balance yet.

Maybe it will suffice to say that I agree with this statement, but that I prefer to err more on the side of "individuation" than you do.

My "individualism" is not for its own sake. It is part of me; I am not comfortable following customs that I don't agree with. I don't feel obligated to follow them in many cases. It's not some game where I just do it for kicks, and I don't know why you would interpret what I'm saying that way.

I have travelled quite a bit; I have a pretty good understanding of the scale of differences between cultures and how they can affect perception of all sorts of things as you discuss above, economics, politeness, language, family, what have you. I'd say that I have friends from a broader collection of cultures, both within the U.S. and without, than most Americans. But I still don't agree with this:

You have an obligation as a human being among equals, who sees every individual as having dignity and worth, to try to understand where he or she is coming from first. Always.

The thing is, I don't think that every individual has dignity and worth, I don't think all people are equal, and I certainly don't think that all their customs and cultures are equal ("equal" here is somewhat ambiguous, especially if we are talking in qualitative terms...what do you mean by it?). And life is too short and complicated and full of people for me to put a great deal of effort into understanding exactly where everyone is coming from. I do it in some cases (i.e. right now), but in others I make a quick evaluation based on what I know and my experience in life so far, and what my intuition tells me. Just like you can't date everyone you meet who wants to go out with you; and you can't take the time to get to know them all really well before you decide. Every day, we're faced with choices about how to react to people and situations that we may not have researched extensively. I guess that in your view, the thing to do in such cases is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and to be as nice to everyone as possible; I'm just not wired that way; again, I think it may relate to a fundamental difference we have in terms of why we think we're alive to begin with, etc.
posted by bingo at 11:43 AM on March 14, 2002


But you don't go out in public and call the person you decided not to date "phony," just because your "intuition" tells you that she is. (Your gut can be wrong, no matter how experienced you are or fancy yourself to be.) You have some respect for the person, or should, which is what I was getting at with the "dignity and worth" part. It's the same with cultures, which can help shape what that person sees him or herself as being, and do so with all of us, in a zillion different ways. Cultures are made up of and created by people, who are your equals from the standpoint of basic human rights and potential. And people can be right or wrong, or misguided or not. But you can't say whether a culture is inferior or superior until you know what the hell you're talking about, know whether what you believe to be appropriate outcomes are the same, etc. (If it's economics, Hattiesburg is doing quite well there. Most of the rest of Miss. is not, as you of course know.)

Oh, and technically, individuation means also coming to terms with community in some way, so it's not at odds with it. And you really need an e-mail address!
posted by raysmj at 12:11 PM on March 14, 2002


I don't really disagree with you there, and I'm not sure if that really means anything in terms of our original argument, which seems to have gotten diluted, for better or worse. And hey, I do have an email address now, check it out.
posted by bingo at 4:30 PM on March 14, 2002


A note is made of it. Thanks for the discussion. Having some tea now. Raspberry, very tasty. Want some?

"After you?"

"No, no you first."

"No, you first!"

"Oh, damn it, just get some freakin' tea already."

"No, really . . ."
posted by raysmj at 8:19 PM on March 14, 2002


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