Saturday, March 29, 2008

Social Commentary

I can't really comment enough on the books I'm reading these days. At present, it's Miss Manners' Guide to Domestic Tranquility. I suspect this subject matter sounds not very interesting to many but would prove inexplicably so were one to pick up the book. That advise and etiquette columns are posted in major news publications every day supports this assumption and I have a theory as to why. Etiquette columns and books are an interesting social commentary. Miss Manners has piercing powers of observation and a witty writing style that are the perfect combination for a pleasurable every day morsel (as in the newspaper) or for a more hearty meal (as in the books).

I will provide here an example that I've been chewing about and noticing in my life the last couple of days. I can't recall from which book I gleaned this gem, but it's basically the increasing tendency for people to take offense at other people's words and actions. It's interesting because this predisposition to search for offense naturally results in taking offense and much unhappiness for all parties involved. The offending act may be something completely innocent, teasing, a faux pas (per m-w, social blunder), or an intentional offense, but in most cases, the best reaction is to rise above. Even were someone trying to offend you, Miss Manners sometimes advises not to acknowledge it as an offense. She slyly observes that this actually is the best way to get the better of ones enemies. Yes, I really enjoy this Miss Manners.

[Also, Miss Manners points out that while we are ready and willing to take offense, we, as a society, don't want to limit our behavior so as not to provide offense. So we're just a powder keg waiting to go off - hence road rage and similar acts of spontaneous violence - she writes often of the time when only a duel would avenge the family honor and celebrates that we aren't in that time, but I question that we aren't.]

In observing my own life, another strange place I'm noticing offense taken where none is meant is for circumstances. Not necessarily circumstances beyond ones control, but just circumstances. I find people making conclusions about circumstances that exist, such as 'I haven't found x, so you must not have it.' That puts me in the relatively uncomfortable (for me or for them) position of contradicting them. When these are my customers, I especially wish I did not have to contradict them, but at least the contradiction can often be in the form of good news, 'Actually, we do have that - it's right here.' I think about all the conclusions I draw about circumstances and people and realize that I'd like to keep a more open mind - instead of 'they must not have,' I'd like to think 'I have not yet found.'

In my personal life, I have a friend that I do not trust to speak the truth clearly. I often rely on her tone of voice to interpret what is actually being said, but sometimes draw conclusions that I don't like. A typical interpretation on my part goes something like, 'her tone of voice is uncomfortable, she's uncomfortable telling me this, she doesn't want to tell me this, she thinks this will make me upset or uncomfortable, this makes me upset and uncomfortable because ___.' I find reasons to be upset and uncomfortable to justify my conclusions based on her tone of voice. The unfortunate part is that tone of voice is a valuable social cue, but I also think that if I make too many conclusions based on that, and above all, if I come to negative conclusions, that I should instead assume it's not about me or look for evidence to support or deny my conclusion before getting upset or acting on it.

So basically, I've been thinking about these ideas for days and had many more eloquent examples and turns of phrase planned out, but you know me, as much as I like writing, it's also a relief to leave it and go on to the living. However, the connection that brings this post full circle for me is linking it to The Four Agreements. Making conclusions is really like making assumptions and taking offense is really like taking things personally. So, all this new age spirituality (which I love) is linked and provides a means of being more mannerly. When I was attending school at an Adventist university, one of my TAs to whom I am eternally grateful, called the Ten Commandments 'a recipe for happy living.' See, it all comes around again and again - I'm so glad, because now I don't have to worry if I don't get it the first time.

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