aide-mémoire: (1) on cultural superficiality

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most
contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing,
and make all manner of joyful noises–so they do; but it is a
great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs
of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his
heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is
relieved by its tears.

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom1)

As I was living in New York, I could never understand—beyond its role of smoothening the interpersonal interactions—why people greeted each other in an exaggeratedly happy manner. If you go to social functions, you could tell how forced the people’s expressions were. Someone would say to me: “Oh, so wonderful to see you again!” (Then I think to myself: “Actually, I don’t even remember meeting you and if we ever did, maybe we did meet for a split second.”) “Oh you’re doing well? WONDERFUL!” (Are you really sure you’re rejoicing in the fact that I am doing well?) Perhaps not everybody would behave like that. But when you encounter them, then you would know immediately.

Acting like that is one thing, but being unable to see through that surface expression and see what lies underneath is entirely a different matter. In fact, in such cheerful interactions, no immediate negativity exists, because it is best to ride the wave of happiness, even at the cost of knowing and ignoring the misfortune underneath it. A certain social code of conduct forms people of a certain social class. You are told to behave in a certain way, or you gather that you have to act in a certain way, even if it is not your true intention. At certain moment in life that way of behavior becomes second nature, then somehow you forget why you do it, or somehow become unable to see the underlying truth. Or perhaps you would remember why you behave that way, because failure of doing so results in getting yourself the label: “persona non grata.”

Yet the irony of all this, is that we all carry that label for certain others to see.

What a lonely world indeed.

Notes   [ + ]