Social Rituals

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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Social Rituals

  1. I really liked this post. I think it shows how far you have come, I do not think you could have written this a few years ago ^_^

    The basic topic is also a good example of how I tend to approach things. I see most things in terms of arbitrary symbols rather then the sum of the words/actions with them. So ‘Hi how are you?’ might as well be ‘flobldygook’ but just happens to sound very similar to a sentence that parses into standard english.

  2. Tricia

    “Presto chango! Meaningless social noise has turned into a ritual of courtesy and connection between two people who are likely otherwise fairly unconnected.”

    I’m impressed. I still don’t like those interactions, probably because the people I least like (and least respect) at work tend to use that greeting. “How you doin’?” “Me, well, I want to punch you for your email 5 minutes ago where you more than implied that I’m incompetent when it was your people who didn’t do their job.” But that’s not an acceptable answer. I’ll try your tack for a while, see if it can be less grating on me.

    As for the touching – it was a shock to me marrying into an Italian family. They always hug and kiss each other as greeting and while saying goodbye. It took a while to be comfortable with that. Now I see it as necessary. “to help the people to relax a bit around each other and smooth further interaction.” Yes, exactly. My mother-in-law is still a human being under all that tough exterior and she still has feelings, even when she tramples on mine, either accidentally or on purpose. It helps me to remember that above all else, she is human and not perfect.

    • Thanks! I hope it works for you.

      I’m impressed at how well you can handle social touch. I still struggle with it.

      • Tricia

        I think because I grew up craving touch. My mother was and still isn’t a physical touch person. Hugs are to be in micro-seconds if at all possible. Comfort via touch didn’t exist. But for me, the best thing in the world when I’m feeling down is to have my dog lay on my back, with all of her 14 lbs on me. So the social touch helps frame the interaction with starting with a good pressure touch point.

  3. Pingback: Yes, I’m sure | autisticook

  4. Jeffry Doe

    Maybe I’m a horrible person as I was not diagnosed with autism of any kind but I never understood these rituals either. The other day a cashier asked me how I was so I responded with “did you ever know why they put flowers in the front of the store?” Her answer “no…?” without going word for word of the dialogue I explained it was about priming and to make you buy more meat. (This is true) I thought that maybe it’d take away a degree of boredom in her day because she could spend the rest of the day contemplating just how much she might be brain washed and perhaps realize the store is a giant maze designed to keep you circling for items. (The longer you are in the store, the more likely you buy more crap)

    Moving on, I don’t understand “how are you.” And when someone brings up the weather I tell them I have an app for that and I was already aware of it as there is a window generally located nearby. When people say “bless you” I tell them i’m not catholic and the black death ended years ago, and I think it’s time they moved on. If someone starts a conversation with “how are you.” And they saw me yesterday, I think to myself, “this person must hate me because they forgot what I said all those other days prior.”

    I also vaguely understand holidays, other than maybe they are there to make people feel better about spitting in god’s face and committing atleast one of the seven deadly sins. I’m not religous, but if I was, it would annoy me that people think buying their already spoiled brat another toy, is some how spreading good will and cheer to man kind.

    If they wanted to do that they would have worn a condom.

    Well anyways, I don’t need my existence acknowledged, nor do I see it necessary. You may see me but it’s not like you want to know me and I generally don’t care to know you if that’s the first thing that gargles out of your mouth. I have a parrot that can say “how are you?” I consider it on par with that.

    I might tell someone to have a good day, but I feel it’s subjective, maybe they smoke crack after work, and a good day is scoring an 8 ball and doing cocaine lines off a hookers chest..I dunno. So when I say good day, I am really saying, enjoy your crack smoking two dollar hooker, wife beating escapade…but I’m acknowledging that I hope they find happiness somewhere in between all that (doubtful).

    Really just a reflection of my optimism than anything else.

    When I find a good reason to say “how are you” “god bless you” and “how’s the weather?” I’ll be happy to participate in their imaginary 1950’s, amphetamine drenched era. Until then, I tell people either made up horrible problems so they feel bad for asking or I simply just stare at them for a good 3 seconds so they know I clearly acknowledge their existence and that yes, I do see I am not dealing with a robot but perhaps I soon will when machines do most the “how are you’s” jobs.

    At that time I assume they will all rise up like planet of the apes and strike down the upper classes. Then when people are wounded and dying, if someone says “how are you?” They’ll mean it.

    • Normally I’d say it’s about social lubrication – a way of easing the inevitable friction that happens any time people interact. However, you seem to enjoy actively increasing the friction, so I suppose social lubrication has little meaning for you. If you like difficult interactions and people wanting to avoid you, then I guess the various social rituals don’t matter for you.