Taking a break from all that stuff about labels (for now. mwahaha). I’ve had part of my brain mulling over social rituals for a while now, and as they recently came up in a conversation with a friend, I figured now is as good a time as any to write about them.
Social rituals have a long history of baffling and/or offending me. My current favorite example is the “hi, how are you?” ritual. It used to REALLY bother me. A person comes along and asks me how I am without actually meaning it, and I am socially obligated to say that I’m fine regardless of how I’m actually doing, and then return the question knowing that I won’t get an honest reply. It tapped right into my “why is lying considered polite?” confusion (of which I still have many examples, but that’s a post for another time). The ritual wasn’t just confusing to me, it was downright offensive.
Then I happened upon an explanation for the ritual, and rather suddenly it stopped bothering me altogether. See, it isn’t just meaningless social noise as I once thought. It’s a ritual that carries a meaning other than the literal words.
So the words go kind of like this:
Them: Hi, how are you?
Me: I’m fine, thanks, how are you?
Them: I am fine as well.
But the actually meaning of the words is more like this:
Them: Hi, I acknowledge you as a person.
Me: Why thank you, I acknowledge you as a person as well.
Them: Thank you.
Presto chango! Meaningless social noise has turned into a ritual of courtesy and connection between two people who are likely otherwise fairly unconnected.
I can view shaking hands the same way. It isn’t simply the neurotic need of people to grab ahold of me (ok, it is still that, but importantly, it’s MORE than that). It’s a way to create a sense of connection between two people, to help the people to relax a bit around each other and smooth further interaction. It’s important for me to remember that most people out there are not so bothered by strangers touching them as I am, and touch helps many people feel a minor sense of connection with whoever it is they touched/were touched by. This one is not as easy for me to participate in since it requires that I either be ok with touching strangers or simply grit my teeth and get through it, but at the very least I don’t find it particularly offensive at this point. I understand why people do it and why they want me to do it.
I have, at this point, decided that when I see social gestures or rituals that seem to have no meaning, I will assume that there is a meaning and it just isn’t immediately obvious to me. It may not even wind up having a meaning for me, but that doesn’t mean it has no meaning for the people who use it.
For instance – a while back on the wrongplanet forums I saw someone asking about why some subgroup of the population (usually girls) interacts with each other the way they do. Specifically, lots of fast-paced chatter, talking over each other, with a noticeable lack of actual information being exchanged. The general attitude of those in the thread was condescension and derision for that particular mode of conversation, with several people decrying it as totally meaningless. Now, it’s true that interacting in such a way would be meaningless *for me.* I would find it stressful and un-fun, so I don’t socialize that way. However, I prefer to assume that it does have some sort of meaning for the people who do socialize that way. Even if absolutely nothing else, it seems quite likely that it serves that purpose that so many rituals do – creating a sense of connection between the people participating.
Thus far it’s actually been really helpful to me to view various kinds of social interaction as rituals. While it doesn’t explain everything, it does take me a lot further than I was before, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who may be confused or offended by the strange social rituals and accompanying obligations that are in the world at large.