Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Manners, Round 2: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout

I was joined for my discussion of Manners by a rather large group, including Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, and Kyle Aisteach.

Manners are often invisible or subconscious, but we use them all the time for beginning and ending interactions, and for smoothing interactions. They are how you present yourself socially. I shared with the group my experience doing educational research in a 5th grade class in Japan, where the pedagogical manners focus of the month was "greetings," and it was written up on the board in front of the class. In fact, when I came in the first day, apparently the class members didn't greet me properly, and they received a full five-minute lecture on the topic from their teacher. You should have seen how they all came in and greeted me the following day - some of them very resentfully!

Manners are taught. This is a very important thing to remember. We don't come by our manners instinctively, but through lots and lots of explicit instruction by parents and people surrounding us. Kyle noted with some humor that every generation thinks the next generation has no manners. For worldbuilding purposes, it's important to think through not only what the manners of your society are for different social groups, but how and in what context those manners are taught to the young people, and whether as Kyle noted they are seen to be changing or "declining."

Bryan mentioned that the modern internet-and-electronics era has brought about an expectation of multitasking and constant interruption, where everyone jumps in. The electronic media we use certainly have altered manners in a very specific (if non-systematic) way. David remarked that the internet has a very specific type of etiquette. For example, parents who embarrass their children by showing up and commenting on their Facebook posts are breaking one of the unspoken rules about what kind of discussions one is licensed to participate in - i.e. one doesn't generally comment on threads commented on by a family member which were started by someone one doesn't know. It's an unusual expectation of privacy, but a very strong one. We maintain expectations of privacy in the online environment which come from our experiences with face-to-face interaction, or possibly regular mail, and are surprised when those are breached by other individuals or by the social media company itself. We mentioned the convention that writing in all capitals implies that one is yelling, rather than that one is emphasizing. Not everyone who uses the internet realizes this, but those who don't will likely end up offending someone inadvertently.

At this point, Brian Dolton arrived and apologized for being late, which gave us all a lovely laugh given the topic of the week. Note for readers: it's nice when participants can arrive at the top of the hour, but I never mind it when people appear and join in! This turned onto the question of accents and their association with politeness. The English accent is often associated with politeness, though there are many variants of it (like Cockney) that would not be. We have a long history of literature and media which have cultivated the association of the English accent with careful manners. David pointed out that people from England will often phrase criticism in terms of a question - when they intend underlyingly to criticize, but use the question strategy to mitigate the strength of the criticism.

David also brought up an interesting aspect of manners, the manners of the Deaf community. He noted that deaf people typically teach their children ways to act politely when in the presence of hearing people. The idea is not to make noises while in hearing company, because those noises disturb the hearing people (though not the deaf people). This rule can be broken deliberately (as can most politeness rules) in order to be annoying, or as a form of protest. David described a situation associated with the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet School for the Deaf where a speech was deliberately interrupted by noises.

Closely related to this was a great story from Kyle, who told us about an underwater scuba instructor who once taught a class of deaf students. Given that most of the instructor's students were hearing, he'd never had to tell people to pay attention in class and not talk over the instructor. It's pretty convenient, actually, when your students' mode of communication is disrupted by water! However, it wasn't the case when he had a class of deaf students, and he had to tell them to pay attention because they were "talking" over him. (I really sense a story coming from that one!)

We also talked about dress. The way we dress is a form of social positioning and is involved in manners just as verbal expression is. Jaleh noted that we dress in a special way to go to church. Our dress helps us to align ourselves socially. I have personally noticed that in the science fiction and fantasy community, there are generally distinctions between the way editors dress, the way authors dress, and the way fans dress. These distinctions are not completely predictable - I mean, I've seen authors wear full costume and I've seen people in suits besides just editors - but one does notice a pattern. I have also noticed that when I'm on the street somewhere and I see a young person whose clothes are half-destroyed by rips, whose available folds of skin are full of holes and metal adornments, and whose hair is in many lengths and many colors, my own instinct might say that I don't understand why this person dresses that way...but my inner anthropologist tells me this is a look that required a lot of effort and sacrifice, and it is not only deliberate, but hard-won, and is intended to convey a particular message. As such, I can't help but feel a degree of respect for it, even though I wouldn't choose that look myself.

I asked David about politeness in Dothraki, the language he invented for Game of Thrones on HBO. In Dothraki, there is a distinction between the second person (you) formal and informal, similar to that found in Hungarian. David noted that in French and Russian the second person plural becomes the formal, and in some languages the third person plural becomes the formal - something he attributes to the idea that it's impolite to address someone directly (and plurality makes it more indirect).

From there we digressed a bit (but we'll come back!) into some other languages and their strategies of informality and formality, talking-around, etc. David mentioned that in Turkish the negative command form is different from the positive one, because it's negative, passive, and impersonal - more like, "that isn't something that is done," than "don't do that!" A lot of politeness strategies can be understood in terms of "face," (which I addressed in my previous Manners hangout) protecting oneself or others against threats to face that come from verbal acts like requests or refusals or negative commands. A handshake comes from the reassurance that one is not holding a weapon in one's hand, and a similar principle applies to verbal interaction. Manners can be seen as in opposition to honesty in many cases (here's a previous post on the topic). Jaleh mentioned the case of the Mbari (correct my spelling, Jaleh!) on Babylon 5, a people who never lied, but who it turned out had exceptions to their rule in cases where it would save face for somebody else.

I mentioned how grammar is often construed to be instruction in "the right way" to say things, but how this is terribly unrepresentative of grammar and its real potential. My son gets worksheets home from school where he's supposed to check a box indicating the "correct way" to say something. Interestingly, one of the options is the one they want, one is ungrammatical to the point of being incomprehensible, and two or more are examples of dialectal speech expressions. Needless to say, I find this very troubling - there's a big difference between "the right way to write a sentence in this class and in general school assignments" and "the right way, period, and anything else is the wrong way."

I also mentioned that in Japanese, there is no "default" politeness level, but that you make a statement about your social positioning (in a casual or formal mode) with everything that comes out of your mouth.

At last (sorry, David!) we returned to Dothraki. David explained that people who know each other will use the informal pronoun when speaking together, but that they will use the formal if others are watching. Thus, people will be aware of their social surroundings, and there is a subset of vocabulary that you would only hear if you peeked into a private tent. David did warn us not to peek into tents, though, since eavesdropping might lead to fighting and tearing out of tongues!

My own story, "Cold Words," had a system of status language that was used non-reciprocally. In any interaction, the person of higher status would be expected to take the stance of dominator and the person of lower status the stance of submissor, each of which would be associated with a different mode of speech. The dominator would use Cold words, and the submissor would use Warm words. As with Dothraki (and many real languages) there were also special conditions under which the rules might be bent. Because the Majesty was considered too Cold and exalted to be exposed to any warmth, only Cold words could be used in his presence, defeating the usual rule of non-reciprocality. The other place with exceptional usage was in private with a person of intimacy like a consort or littermate. This gave some trouble to the relations between the main alien character, Rulii, and the human linguist Parker.

David brought up the question of eye contact, particularly in classroom settings. There is a rule of politeness in many cultures that one should not look one's elders in the eye; David particularly mentioned Mexico and the problems Mexican immigrants experience in American classrooms where eye contact with the teacher is interpreted as a sign of attention and intelligence. Thus, the children are unwittingly, and unconsciously hurting themselves by conforming to a culturally different view of politeness. Because they are quieter and don't look the teacher in they eye, they are often unfairly interpreted as being stupid and rude.

Kyle said that he's very tired of seeing alien first contact stories without social gaffes, even though such problems are very common.

I recommended Aliette de Bodard's work, including the Obsidian and Blood series, for non-traditional views of culture and manners. Mary Robinette Kowal also does a great deal of work with historical manners, in her books Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass (coming out now!).

We remarked that historical manners are worth looking into. Kyle mentioned that in his time, Sherlock Holmes was shockingly rude, but his rudeness doesn't translate well into our time. This is one of the things that the modernization in the recent TV series "Sherlock" handles really well - Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes is quite as irritating as the historical Sherlock would have been, and now modern audiences can appreciate the critical role played by Watson as his buffer from the rest of the social community.

Thanks to everyone who came to the hangout!


  1. That was such a fun session!

    The Minbari view towards lying could have been just a fluff tidbit, but the B5 writers really worked it into context in multiple episodes. There was the episode where Lenier lied to save face for Ambassador Molari, a minor enough incident but it made Molari look at Lenier with more respect after that. That was the one I mentioned in the hangout.

    In another episode, a Minbari shot at Captain Sheridan, the "Starkiller" (for his role in bringing down the Black Star, one of the Minbari flagships, during the Earth-Minbari War). Lenier was the only one the accused Minbari would speak to because they were of the same House, something like a clan connection. Lenier wasn't exactly lying about what he learned in his own investigation, but he'd had to get talked around to revealing the truth in a way that satisfied justice and honor at the same time for the Captain, himself, the accused, and the House. Shame for self and kin was a big part of the matter. The Captain had to learn about that in order to save face for Lenier, someone he respected, as well as seeing justice done for himself. It was a complex situation, and I was in awe of how it was done. I still am actually, lots of cultural subtexts were pulled on for it.

    I love B5 for the complexity of worldbuilding and culteral exploration. If I had the words to do so, I could write several articles about various worldbuilding components from that show alone.

    Thinking of multiple languages with different uses, the Minbari had 3 languages to match their three castes: Lenn-Ah (Light) for Worker, Adrenato (Grey) for Religious, and Vik (Dark) for Warrior. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minbari The languages weren't used a great deal on the show, mostly just Adrenato when used at all, but they had differing roles.

    1. Jaleh, thanks for the explanation and the link. I as yet have not had the opportunity to enjoy this show.

  2. It's in the Apendix, but part of the reason everyone thought Pippin was some kind of hobbit prince included the fact that he addressed Denethor in the informal 2nd person. The Shire had, at that time, lost the formal version, but it still existed in Gondor.

    1. That's pretty cool, MK! Thanks for telling us.