Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Manners: a Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

My visitors for this hangout were Kyle Aisteach, Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Harry Markov. It was good to see Dale back after not seeing him for a while! Glenda had a few audio difficulties, so she doesn't appear as often as the others in this report - sorry, Glenda!

We talked about manners. What do you think when you think of manners? I asked. Kyle thought of "A comedy of manners," while Dale thought of choices you make about how to moderate interaction, and Glenda talked about greasing interaction. All of them are correct.

When I start into the topic of manners, which is one of my favorites, one of the big issues I face is that many people think just of fancy manners when you say "manners." Manners is a much bigger deal than that, for two reasons:
  1. People don't ever not have manners
  2. Manners are managed subconsciously
You might argue that you're very aware of manners and what you should do, and you'd be right. People are very aware of what they should do. Researchers have found that if you ask someone what they say in a particular social situation, people will tell them what they feel they should say, not what they actually say when bugged with a microphone.

Manners in your story are more than just having one prim and proper character.

We then tackled the topic by discussing two aspects of manners language that I had studied:
phatic talk (the talk whose content and meaning has less importance than the social fact that stuff is being said) and Speech Acts, which are contexts where you are "doing" something by saying it (requests, refusals, marrying two people, etc.)

Any time you perform a speech act, you are potentially insulting someone or "threatening their face." Not literally, of course - you're not likely to damage someone's visage with a refusal. However, if you think of "face" in terms of your social image, like "saving face," you'll see what I mean. There are lots of ways that people use to mitigate this possibility. If I add some nice pretty words it will make the threat softer, and protect me from this person who could potentially be very upset.

Kyle told us a very interesting story about how difficult it was for people to get women's accounts of the Titanic disaster, because it was considered rude to ask a lady about anything upsetting that had happened to her in the past. Apparently some people's stories were lost forever because whenever they were asked about it, they would get all affronted!

We asked, "How can you approach somebody? What is appropriate?" Sometimes there is a socially licensed way to approach a person. Sometimes it's easy, as when you are friends. Sometimes you can't approach that person at all, and have to use elaborate work-arounds.

Dale asked me what I meant by "elaborate work-arounds." The most common everyday example I could think of is when a girl who is not a member of a particular social clique likes a boy who is a clique member, and asks an intermediary to approach him - or even asks an intermediary to approach another clique member, who can then approach him on her behalf.

Kyle mentioned that when you see a celebrity out eating dinner, it's inappropriate to interrupt their dinner and ask for an autograph. This leads to people standing by doors, lying in wait outside the bathroom, etc. hoping that the celebrity will stray across their path in one of these socially autograph-licensed areas.

I gave an example from my current novel in progress of a servant who faces social pitfalls when trying to return to his lady the key to her diary, which has been stolen. The servant can't go to the thief and demand the key back because the thief is a more senior servant than he is. In addition, he can't take the key to his lady himself because he'd risk having her think that he had been trespassing into her private thoughts without permission (and he hasn't yet won her trust). In the end he enlists the help of the lady's son, who as a nobleman is of higher rank than the thieving servant, and who as the lady's son is someone she trusts. In the end she and her son both admire him more for his discretion. And that's one of the critical things that manners can do for you.

In this context, Kyle mentioned N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a great example of a story that handles subtle and complex social rules. That's one I'm going to have to seek out!

I mentioned the situation in Japan, where it's uncommon for you to meet anyone as a casual street acquaintance, and much more likely for you to be introduced to someone through correct connections. This situation makes a lot of sense if the language requires you to use different manners depending on the person's relative rank to you. How are you going to guess the rank of a person on the street if you haven't been introduced?

Kyle told the story of Saint Bernadette, who was a peasant in France who met the Virgin Mary. Apparently she knew she was in the presence of a deity because Mary addressed her in the formal "vous" form, and nobody in her life had ever addressed her in the formal!

We briefly discussed the idea of formal and informal pronouns (tu and vous in French), which is common to the Romance languages. Formerly, these pronouns used to be used as reflections of power relationships, where vous referred to someone of high rank and tu to someone of lower. However, this usage has changed over time, and now it's much more common for people to say vous for people they don't know, and tu for people they know, turning it from a power measure into a solidarity measure. According to Kyle, this is at least in part deliberate, as an attempt to move away from old definitions of social class.

At that point I had a chance to introduce another really useful academic concept about politeness: the difference between Positive Politeness and Negative Politeness. The adjectives used here are not the most useful in reflecting how this works, but because it can be really helpful in developing social interactions, I'll explain.

Negative Politeness is the one we most often think of. This is the kind of politeness which involves saying fancy things in order to make sure another person knows we didn't intend to step on them in any way. The core idea here is that the person "doing" negative politeness is emphasizing how willing they are to protect the other person's autonomy, and their right to do things unhindered.

Positive Politeness is the opposite in that it involves getting closer to a person, rather than moving farther away. Autonomy is not the idea here; alignment is. This is the kind of politeness which involves approaching someone and saying something to make sure they know we're on their side. The things we say can seem impolite, especially when looked at from the perspective of negative politeness which relies on autonomy.

Different people, and different subcultures use these two different styles. I have friends who expect negative politeness from me, and others who expect positive politeness. I have helped friends through situations where someone tried to use positive politeness with a person who expected negative, and inadvertently offended them by crossing their personal social boundaries.

At this point, Harry joined us, and we engaged in some greetings and other social smoothing!

As we move through our lives, we are constantly called upon to take social stances - to act like we're members of this social group or that, to approach someone in a humble or a friendly or an authoritative way. I find it really interesting how I have to change my voice and my mode of expression when I go from chit-chatting with my kids and their carpool friend in the car to telling them they've crossed the line and they need to settle down or I won't be able to drive!

Manners are everywhere. They're in your stories, too. Just take an example of an interaction from a story that you're writing and take a closer look. Play it out. Look at what is at stake socially.

Dale mentioned a context in which someone in a position of service, i.e. someone who was socially obliged to carry out another person's orders, was asked to "promise" to do something. Promising is a prime example of a speech act, but unexpected in this context because carrying out an order is something that should be so normal it's unnoticeable here. To ask someone who serves you for a promise, you'd need to be asking them for something that is well outside the boundaries of their normal service.

How many stories do you know about oathbreakers?
Harry mentioned the unbreakable oath taken by Snape in the Harry Potter books.

Dale gave a rather fascinating example of manners in a workplace culture, where if someone suggested you take on a job or a function, you were essentially forbidden to refuse. However, you were not necessarily expected to succeed in carrying out the job or function. You were only obliged to take it on.

I mentioned an example that my husband shared with me: if you receive an invitation from the Queen of England, you can't refuse it. If for some reason (illness or disaster) you can't attend the event she has invited you to, you gratefully accept her invitation, and then say, "unfortunately, I won't be able to make it..."

Manners are everywhere. They are in social restrictions on behavior, approaches, and speech. They are in group membership behaviors. They are in ceremonies and rituals. I encourage you to think about all of these things as you write. It's very easy to fall into a kind of theoretical stance when writing, to think about your world from the standpoint of the author and say, "I have these social groups and this gamepiece is blue, this gamepiece is red, this gamepiece is yellow..." Take it further. Look closely at how the different groups are expected to interact, and what manners they need to follow in different situations.

My Varin world has special greetings that people use to express respect for the people who are of higher caste rank, and the group asked me to explain some details of the world. Essentially, each group has a different job function (officers, public/private servants, laborers, knowledge workers, etc) and each group is proud in its identity and the way in which it keeps life in Varin running. "We've got the real power here, no matter what anyone else thinks; Varin wouldn't survive without us" is the general attitude. The greetings thus reflect the perceived core value held by each caste.
To greet a merchant: "May riches spring from your footsteps."
To greet a laborer: "Fearless labor is the foundation of prosperity."
To greet a knowledge worker: "The focused mind is the sustainer of life."
To greet a knowledge worker who graduated from the University: "May you take your place in the Record of Great Masters."
To greet a public servant: "May your honorable service earn its just reward."
To greet a soldier/officer: "The heart that is valiant triumphs over all."
There are no special greetings for the nobility, to whom caste is more or less invisible, or for the undercaste, because nobody is low enough to owe them a polite greeting. I decided on these greetings very early on in my world design, but they made a great basis for later refinement of the intercaste interactions. If you can start your manners on a basic level, you can move on from there and increase subtlety as you go.

Thank you to everyone who came for the discussion. We decided that today's discussion would be about Magic Systems. We'll be meeting at 11am PDT today on Google+, so I hope to see you there!

1 comment:

  1. Just this morning I was thinking about the advice given to women when negotiating for a raise, promotion or benefits here in the US. Women are told to cultivate the relationship/friendliness of the interaction and to be "nice" in their requests, while men are free to be direct and aggressive. Studies have shown that if women use the same language as men, the women are labeled too pushy and aggressive, while the men are called confident. Sounds like gendered and cultural expectations of negative politeness if I understand your definition.