Monday, May 28, 2007

Pleasantry and Vaclav Havel?

My current beef is about pleasantries. You know, when someone asks you "How are you doing?" and what they really mean is "I know you. We should acknowledge the acquaintance, but I do not really want to know anything about your life." They expect you to respond "Okay" even if everyone in your immediate family other than you (of course) has just died in a grisly murder. Or rather, they don't expect to actually hear about how you're dealing with the aftershock of discovering the bloody scene of the crime, the loss of both parents and three siblings, or...

Not that I have experience with that. I just like hyperbole.

Of course, I also know that there are certain situations where it is perfectly okay to respond to "How are you doing?" with "Oh gosh, it's awful. My parents just died in a plane accident" or even "I am feeling generally low but do not know why." There are just other situations in which those answers would be unacceptable, and this is not purely determined by whether or not they are true. Negotiating that is what makes us socially acceptable human beings. In fact, there are several people I (my family) know who don't negotiate that; they share too much. When you ask them "How's it going?" you are guaranteed to hear an at least ten minute tirade about whatever they are currently upset about. They are weird. It is hard to be friends with them, because they never let up. You can never have a casual conversation with them, it is always intense and meaningful. Who would want that? Blah.

But it also goes the other way; there are people who never share anything and just put on a happy face because they don't feel comfortable doing it. Or something. Because whenever they hear "How are you doing?" they respond "Okay," and stop there. I am like this. To use an example, at the beginning of every session, my therapist asks me "How are you doing?". Clearly, she means the question in a non-pleasantry way. I know this. But my response is "Okay," and she has to ask again, ask for details, before I actually share any. This is absurd. I am paying her to listen to the story of my life and help me work out the problems within it. I am paying her to hear more than just pleasantry. But my response is still just the vague "I'm fine," that I associate with civility and social contact. By responding in the shallow, social way, I am wasting time and money. But I still do it because I am distinctly uncomfortable doing anything else.
I am not comfortable with the fact that anyone actually wants to hear what's going on in my life, or that anyone cares one way or another how I am actually doing when they ask the question "How're you doing?"

I know that there are situations in which a good friend asks me how I am doing and it would be appropriate for me to actually share my emotions. I also know that there are people I can go to and say "I am feeling like crap and need to talk to someone. We are going to talk about my problems for five minutes and then other stuff" and that would be okay. The problem is that although I can say conclusively that when my therapist asks me how I am doing, she means it in the non-social sense, I cannot say which friends and which situations other than that are actually appropriate for heart-to-hearts or confiding or complaining or whatever it is that I do. I mean, I have a vague sense that at some points most of my friends would be receptive to it, but I can't say with any certainty what those are, and so I default to "Okay."

Which isn't exactly healthy, and leads to me feeling like I can't confide in anyone.

I was going to tie this into Vaclav Havel. I think he is the bees knees. I was going to compare that sort of social pleasantry to the veiled message of the "Workers of the World Unite!" sign. When you ask someone "How are you doing?" what you are really asking them is "Do you know who I am and are you willing to pretend that we have a connection?" You don't want the actual connection necessarily - the actual information - just the smile and the wave and the pretense. In social situations, this pleasantry serves the purpose of making everyone think (or force themselves to think) that they have connections while really only isolating people further. It forces people to find connections to eachother through flatter, shallower means, to express these connections through the way they dress or the music they listen to rather than actual sharing of stories and emotions. It allows you to superimpose your own trials and tribulations on other poeple who may or may not be going through them, simply because you don't have any contradictory information. My friends are the people who dress like me, who listen to the same music I do, and must be going through the same things I am. My friends are exactly like me, because we do not talk about enough of our lives to force differentiation. It means the friendship exists as a thin delusion, and will be brought quickly to an end whenever you find some potentially minor difference to pull it apart. Since society rests on this vague sameness, this shallowness, it all crumbles if you actually try to interact with it on a meaningful level.

Of course there are exceptions. I have fundamental differences and disagreements with people who I count as my good friends. Everyone does. But there is an element to which you are always surprised by those differences, you are caught off-guard when a friend is devout if you are an atheist (and vice versa), you are shocked when your friends do not understand why you did something or why they do not share your confusions.

I don't know if that actually ties back to Vaclav Havel very well. But I like it anyway.


Embly said...

I am writing a 20 page paper on dostoevsky, forgiveness, death and love and how this all relates to the self and rationality...I am intending on writing it all today...I am intrigued...but perhaps not well...

Elizabeth said...

Oof. Times like this remind me why I am glad that I only have finals, really. And short (<10) page papers.

Good luck!