I’ve been thinking a lot about etiquette lately.
This came from a rather simple (I thought) question about whom to approach first in a mixed social situation, such as a gathering of Japanese and Americans. Let’s say these are very conservative, traditional folks on both sides of the table. What is the “polite” way for an American to approach the Japanese person?
- Stick out their hand, like any American?
- Make a bow, like any Japanese?
- Take the time to find out beforehand from someone in-the-know what the proper greeting is?
The Story of Oh!
What I found startling as I asked people to solve this hypothetical situation was the way they created stories around it. These stories ranged from simple “I would bow, because I want to be respectful” to “I’d shake hands, of course, those Japanese can’t force their culture on me!“. Sometimes the same action would occur, but for a different story: “I would shake hands, because trying to pretend I am able to bow correctly is presumptive and rude.”
Then people started to tell their own stories: “There was this one time that I offered to shake hands with an Asian person and they just looked at me like I was some kind of idiot! I realized they thought I was barbaric or something just because I didn’t know how to freakin’ bow, and it made me feel stupid.” Some even went into the Big Picture Political: “Greetings like that are based in nationalist stereotypes that led directly to world wars and capitalist oppression, so I would eschew all of them in favor of finding a more authentic way of relating. After all, we’re people first, our cultural identities second!”
After a while, I began to regret asking the question in the first place. But it made me wonder: where are all these stories coming from? What I thought was a simple question had turned into a gigantic stewpot of experiences and projected motives and cultural oppression, even!
And a pretty engaging 500 word story for the beginning of a blog post, apparently, if you’re still reading. Don’t worry, though, I’m about to get to the point.
“…whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.”
Adam Gopnik, CAN SCIENCE EXPLAIN WHY WE TELL STORIES?
In trying to figure this out, I was led to a couple of really fantastic TED talks by my housemate. In one, Paul Bloom talks about the idea that humans are, at heart, essentialists: that is, rather than take things for what they are, we have
the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters. – quoted from Why We Reason
That’s what it is about the etiquette question that made it so controversial: the handshake is not a handshake, the bow is not a bow, it is the meaning that we are sure is behind it that matters. And if we don’t know the story behind it, then we make one up. Sometimes the story we make up (“Wow, she’s gorgeous, intelligent, driven – way out of my league!“) turn out to be completely wrong (“OMG! She emailed me!”) and that changes our valuing of a thing (“Maybe she’s not as intelligent as I thought…”).
Or maybe that example has more to do with a story the narrator has created about him or herself, and that’s where the inaccuracy lies. That’s the thing about stories; they are, at best, accurate fiction, because no story can tell the complete truth; it can only tell a version of the truth, as filtered through the knowledge, preconceptions, and receptivity of the teller and the audience.
The kind of story we make up, I believe, says a lot about our own fears, desires, hopes, and dreams. And that’s where it gets dangerous.
Look! I made up a word! And unlike other made-up words like “polyamory” that messily mix Greek & Latin roots, this one is all Greek to me. It means “many-storied”, and I think I will proudly add “polyeopteniac” to my own particular list of epithets.
Why? Well, let me refer you to another TED Talk (seriously, I’m beginning to think a good practice would be to eschew all TV for a month except for TED & RSA). This one is by Chimamanda Adichie, talking about The Danger of a Single Story. She talks a lot about assumptions that people make as they are enculturated with particular stories. One of the great takeaway quotes is:
…the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
They make one story become the only story.
She talks about making the effort to see different perspectives, not only between cultures but situationally. A person once commented to her about how sad it was that Nigerian fathers abused their children like one of the characters in her novel did; she responded with how equally sad it was that New York stockbrokers were all serial killers like American Psycho. The story of a person is sometimes the story of that person, not the story of their surroundings.
Where is the Love?
I told you I’d get to it eventually. All of this psychosocial evolutionary theory is well and good, but as you may know, I’m not out to fix the culture. Any culture. I’m not even out to fix you, in fact – this site is just designed to give practical tips to make hard times happier.
And if there’s one thing that can give us the feeling that we’re on hard times, it’s love. It’s that person we broke up with, it’s that person we’re with that we don’t feel good enough for, it’s that person we wish we were with, it’s that person we’ve never seen and who we suspect may not exist because after all who would want to go out with a person like you anyway?
You notice how the common thread in that paragraph is “person”. People are just people, right? How else could someone come up with “People first, roles second” if there wasn’t some common denominator? Personally, I think the word “person” is null, though, until you modify it with a story: “…we broke up with” “...wish we were with.”
So what kinds of love stories are you telling yourself? What kind have you told yourself? I’m enjoying reading The Princess Bride aloud to a friend; that’s a story of True Love. Or do you prefer to tell yourself a story of betrayal and passion, like Les Liaisons Dangereuse? Maybe it’s a simple love story like the amazing Moonrise Kingdom (go see it. Seriously.).
Whatever it is – I invite you to examine it. I invite you to ask yourself, as the writer in the New Yorker did, what kind of person you feel like because of that story. Perhaps you can examine other stories attached to it – not that invalidate the original story, necessarily, but that deepen it. That change your understanding of it. Perhaps you can look at the future, and see what kinds of stories you’re telling about what’s to come…and what other stories might be possible.
Take the time. I think it’s worth it. As Gropnik writes,
stories startle us with their strangeness, but they intrigue us by their originality, and end by rewarding us with the truth, after an effort.