Thursday, March 15, 2012

Courtesy and Culture

The more I think about culture and communication, the more it shows up all around me. Same goes for anything you focus on, of course. I keep noticing the different values and frameworks painfully colliding in US politics at the moment, for one thing. Each time I feel like I'm watching a car crash that's avoidable, but I'm just far enough away from it that I can't communicate to the drivers to keep it from happening. I just can't yell loud enough to get either side to turn around and see the other; they're both driving backward and looking straight ahead and then angrily stomping out of their smashed up vehicles and cursing at each other for careless driving.

Anyway this article about courtesy on called "Please Read This Story, Thank You" caught my eye and I immediately spotted another subject that (in my opinion) could be more fully explored with a multicultural/anthropological/whatchamacallit perspective than the treatment that it gets in the article. In it, Linton Weeks explores the change of certain American cultural customs as a possible decline in courtesy and formality. The dwindling use of "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome" is seen by many as a dehumanizing process that removes gratitude and helpfulness in our daily interactions. I immediately thought of the "Life Without Chiefs" article by Marvin Harris which we read for class, where he asserts (based on Dentan's work in Malaysia) that saying "thank you" can be a terribly rude thing in some cultures. As a member of the generation that no longer uses the same "magic words" we were taught growing up and as a student of cultural understanding, I wanted to explain this change of symbolic behavior in terms of underlying values (like the iceberg drawing from class, yada yada).

So in Weeks' article, I look for underlying values in the words of an etiquette expert who says that "The principles of respect, consideration and honesty are universal and timeless." This seems culturally bound to me rather than truly universal, but I can relate to those values for sure. In Harris' article, saying "thank you" might be a sign of overly calculating the process of reciprocity. He also writes about Richard Lee's "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" experience with another culture's concept of egalitarian reciprocity, where the Bushmen he works with never praise or compliment a gift because it might make the gift giver (often a successful hunter) arrogant and even lead to violence. Well our culture doesn't highly esteem arrogance or violence either (in theory), so it's interesting that the values are not entirely different even though the logic that dictates customary behavior diverges sharply.

Now to explain the thought process behind ditching "please" and "thank you." This may only apply to my own personal thought process, but "no problem" always sounded more humanizing and considerate based on my values. To me, the meaning behind "you're welcome" can either be a heartfelt "I invite you to come and see me/ask me for help/receive a favor again any time in the future," or it can go something like "why yes, I did help you out: aren't I nice." Something akin to the arrogance issue there. The use of "you're welcome" is still acceptable to me and sometimes used in more formal contexts, but has always grated slightly in other situations. The one that stands out to me most I remember from childhood (though this has happened once or twice since as well). A friend paid a compliment to me and when I said "thank you," they responded "you're welcome." Huh? I know that you can "give" or "pay" a compliment in English, but was it really such a great gift to me that they had to acknowledge their generosity? (Perhaps this problem would be alleviated if I knew a better rule for accepting a compliment; I know this is a matter of custom and culture as well; e.g. "Oh, this old thing?")

So I generally reserve "you're welcome" for communicating with the older generation (showing deference?) or when at work, where I'm clearly providing someone else a service and it's generally acknowledged as such. When I say "no problem" to a friend in response to an expression of thanks, what I mean is "I care enough about you as a human that I either didn't notice I was helping you because it happened so naturally," or "I was made happier by the opportunity to serve you and I see this as a mutually beneficial relationship." Perhaps a prescriptive manner coach would see "no problem" as just a manifestation of casual behavior or laziness. But for me, it's a way of trying to show humility and reject any unnecessary gratitude, a way to be more fully altruistic rather than self-congratulating. Perhaps it's even a way to avoid thinking of myself as so lazy that it's a real pain to help others. That would be a direct connection between out underlying values (not being lazy) which still manifests as an opposite behavior on the surface. And this within the "same" American culture! It must say something about shared or shifting generational values, although I'm not sure what. More research needed.

This is clearly a truncated explanation of cultural perspective and change since I only addressed one phrase and only from about one and a half perspectives*, but it's a start. Hopefully good practice at identifying different possible values and behaviors that will be useful in the field this summer. I can see it being very applicable, especially since I so want to practice reciprocity appropriately and form good relationships with people there.

*(One perspective would be mine, the half is what I imagine others think based on readings and personal experience...)


  1. I really enjoyed this article, Roseanna! I'm adding the articles you've listed to my future reading list. :)

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I was happy to be able to combine my love of NPR with my growing love of anthropological studies.

    And as a sidenote, I have surveyed just a few of my friends about this issue and have gotten very similar responses when I asked about their preference for "No problem." And like a proper scientist, I didn't prompt them with my opinion first! So that's slightly more data to back me up. Just have to look into the other phrases now. One friend said that our lack of "please" and "thank you" is because our generation feels entitled. A tempting explanation, although more critical than descriptive.