How are you?

20 May

Roger Sandall, an anthropologist the Right loves to love, has a bit of a spray on ABC Unleashed about one of our own cultural practices.

Don didn’t look good. His stick was shaky and there was fear in his eyes – fear and frustration combined. After the op he was taking months to recover. And he’d begun to think he never would.

This morning he was like a man bracing to receive a blow – “How are you today?” from a careless acquaintance…

And it’s all so insincere. The greeter doesn’t really care. For the greeter it’s just a formula requiring a formulaic response. But for the suffering receiver who knows painfully well how he’s feeling, and who half wants to unburden himself – or maybe who’s desperate to unburden himself but who feels inhibited when talking to strangers – the flippant formula unbearably pricks and probes.

Other cultures handle things better. The most civilized people in our neighborhood are Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean. They don’t probe, they don’t pester, they’re not pushy or impertinent.

One could meet them ten times in a single day and it would always be a friendly smile and a murmured but respectful acknowledgement of one’s presence, an understanding that we all have our troubles and that they should only be shared with close intimates if they’re shared at all. Everything is kept at a safe and manageable distance.

No “How are you today?”. No kicking-in one’s mental defences…

While I see the dark irony of the question in the case Sandall begins with, and even sympathise, it isn’t long before the prejudices that underlie Sandall’s objections become crystal clear:

I wonder how such an aggressive greeting originates. Is it part of western egalitarianism – “Your mind is my mind”? Is it part of that insatiable western curiosity that must know everything – and wants to know it now? Perhaps it is a spillover effect from the talkshow world where private life staged as public emoting makes for better drama and bigger audiences.

Probably all three. In the past, aristocratic codes often tended to reticence regarding feelings, and discretion regarding what is told to whom and when. Such were the codes of traditional aristocracies in England and Japan. The code of reticence and restraint insulated one from unwanted inquiry or familiarity.

With the breakdown of such codes, there is a kind of enforced familiarity in which the greeting becomes also a challenge to acknowledge equality of status. This connects with the western determination that nothing should go unexamined, no corner of the mind should be left unexplored: not yours, not mine.

And doubtless the compulsive voyeurism of the talkshows also plays an important modern part too…

What transparent crap that bit of blatant snobbery masquerading as cultural analysis really is! Long before the objects of Sandall’s pseudo-aristocratic sensititivity “How are you?” has been a standard greeting in our culture, along with “Comment allez-vous?” among the French. Obviously the silent grovel or forelock tug is more Sandall’s go.

Granted the question is somewhat meaningless. Very few utterers of “How are you?” expect a medical report in response. Over forty years ago, before talk-back or Oprah, a classmate at Sydney University did an interesting experiment on phatic communication — that is on the formulaic phrases and gestures we use to register another person or to open a conversation — by standing in the middle of the quad and muttering “Mashed potatoes” to passers-by. Almost invariably he was answered with responses such as, “Fine thanks” or “Not bad. How are you?”

In China when people meet they tend to ask, “Have you had dinner?” or “Have you eaten?” Now while that may reflect a culture which has known famine, or the significance of food in Chinese culture, it isn’t a serious question. “Mind your own bloody business you impertinent twirp” wouldn’t be an appropriate response either.

I found another cross-cultural phenomenon too in my dealings with Koreans and Chinese over the years. Some topics that are taboo, almost, in polite conversation in our culture are not so in theirs, and of course the other way around. So try these, perfectly OK in East Asia as conversation starters, for “intrusiveness”, Roger:

“Are you married?”

“How much do you earn?”

I really am surprised that an anthropologist should show such a lack of objectivity on something I would have thought was in Anthropology 101.

I will admit that when visiting the Hospice this time last year to see Lord Malcolm “How are you?” may not have been my opening gambit. But then even “Good day, mate” may have been a touch inappropriate… And “So, not dead yet then…” is probably a level of honesty we haven’t quite reached…

Oh, and Roger: see “How are you?” in over 425 languages. 😉 I rather like this one:

Chishona (Southern Africa) Makadini?
Chishona (S. Africa) [I’m fine if you are] Ndiripo makadiniwo

Now have a nice day, you all… How’s it hanging, Roger? 😉

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One response to “How are you?

  1. Bruce

    May 20, 2008 at 10:39 am

    I suspect that roger is running the same old self-scam of maintaining a deliberate state of ignorance so as to continue suspending his disbelief in the vacuousness of his prejudice. Something the culture warriors of the right are particularly good at.

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