Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Order, Politesse

We are experts at manipulating symbols, assuring humanity's dominance over the planet and all other species. Not only do we communicate with the visible formal code of language - letters, words, sentences, grammar - we manipulate and are manipulated by non-visible codes.

While words, and the meaning they carry, are by no means value-neutral, the agreement to or the dissent they pose to the existing order of things are explicit and easily corroborated or contested.

The kind of communication we should interrogate then, is that which largely goes unnoticed first because it is factual - i.e. matter of fact, and second because the message is delivered, not through language, but through the unconscious use of symbols.

Symbols are not only images but also objects and even ways of doing. Much as we produce that which constitutes our material life - food, clothes, houses - so too do we produce that which underpins and reproduces our ways of doing, our culture. Like it or not, we are unwitting participants in this process of cultural production. The trick then is to become conscious of the non-visible codes with which we communicate, especially so when they serve to cloak that which must be exposed.

In a society obsessed with appearances such as ours, behaviour, the outward manifestation of intent, not only mirrors the realm of production and how we fit in the system, but also serves to reinforce the current order and the extant hierarchies within. I find that appearances are especially important in a society empty of substance. Where form takes precedence over content, then you know appearances must be meticulously kept.

The labels ‘polite’ and ‘vulgar’ carry in themselves connotations of a positive and a negative way to behave. Certain behaviours are deemed acceptable and admirable while others deserve chastisement, even punishment. One must behave accordingly in certain situations. This signals who belongs to what socio-economic class and who doesn’t. What are ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ conversation topics? We use the term ‘class’ denoting someone of ‘good’ and proper taste. If we see society being divided into subgroups called classes, then why does having ‘class’ pertain only to those who belong in the elite bracket? Modes of behaviour and the production of culture of those who ‘have class’ solidify into norms and trickle down the social strata. Their culture, their ‘refined’ ways of doing things are then emulated by those who wish to be in their position vis-à-vis the rest of society. By emulating the form, the underclasses hope to aspire to substance.

In other ‘flat’ societies, those which have reached a measure of affluence and equality, ‘class’ ceased to mean anything. So too have notions of ‘distinction’ and ‘taste’ – markers and ways of doing which serve to emphasise difference.

Politeness is never more obvious between two persons of unequal power or socio-economic standing. ‘Vulgarity’ occurs when that which emphasises the power distance is transgressed. One communicates deference by verbal cues, ‘po’ and ‘opo’ being obvious markers. Other verbal cues include ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir.’ I have taken the habit of a journalist friend of mine, to address people in the tertiary sector – especially waiters and security guards as ‘boss’ in a tone of voice that confers deference to an expert, in the waiter’s case over his dominion in the kitchen and serving food, and the guard his dominion over giving directions or directing traffic on the parking lot.

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