Posts Tagged 'conversational forms'

Change of the guard

Note: I wrote this a while ago, before Emilia was born. It wasn’t quite right at the time so I let it season for a while. I have made some edits but did not change the references to our family of three.

The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left.”

– Jerry M. Wright

It is a frightening thing when you realize that all the mores, values and customs that make up the very core of your social self have shifted a notch on the scale away from current and in the direction of Mesozoic. This happens to all of us. There is nothing new in getting old. But from an anthropological point of view, there maybe something worth saying here about some of the details.

My first realization that I was no longer in the age group that could most viably claim currency was when I worked at the ranch camp in Ohio, and it centered around music. I was just 29, and I then still considered myself to be a young person, but my coworkers were mostly 19 years old and younger. When I said something about the Doobie Brothers and no one knew what I was talking about, I furrowed my brow a little. Similarly, I heard a song on the radio that was catchy, and I wondered absently at my coworkers who the group might be.

“T’pau”, said Geo immediately. I had never heard of T’pau, and at first I thought Geo was trying to eject a bit of apple skin or something from the tip of his tongue. Furthermore, the song was apparently already old news.


I started licking my finger and sticking it in the wind to see what was going on. I realized that I was somehow out of step with the cultural mind, although even then it took a while for it to dawn on me that there were people in the world who were fully ten years younger than I and yet were grown and developed human beings, and that that decade of seniority was the beginning of the difference between being young and being eveything else.

* * * *

I have several times reflected on the social manners of today’s young people — I guess I’m speaking mainly of the males — and entertained the thought that many of them seem to me to be not overly warm, even though they are, as a broad generalization, people I really like and people I would trust to run the country. At least, there’s something that I’m interpreting, maybe incorrectly, as unwarmth. I think of my own generation as self-obsessed, angry, unbalanced, compulsive, lazy, reactionary, and not very grounded. Broadly and generally, I mean. But still, I think of my contemporaries as warm, or at least polite in ways that make it easy to get to know someone. The generation coming into their own now are, generally and broadly, level-headed, just, honest, creative, energetic, helpful, intelligent, extremely capable, and not very excitable, but there sometimes seems to be something kind of flat about them in social interactions, and I have struggled in recent years to figure out whether I’m just misperceiving the situation or if there’s something fundamentally different about the way they interact with others.  

We (my better half and our better third) attended a block party. Angela and I familied late and we have a young daughter, so we frequently find ourselves in company with younger couples. Our best friends are younger couples. For me this makes for some strange little moments. This was such a moment. There were only two men present at first, we’ll call them…oh, Simon and Mike. Simon was hosting the party with his wife. We were in their backyard. Mike and Simon live nextdoor to each other, on the opposite side of the street from us. They were talking about something in a relaxed way. I went over and the two men interrupted their conversation to regard me, and I said…I keep reliving the horror…”so Simon, what do you do?” I added ” — for trouble or entertainment” just in time, because I could see immediately that asking what someone did for a living was “not on”. He looked at me as though I had asked him whether he took his lunch to school or rode the bus. As though my question had no meaning. He furrowed his brow and slowly, making a little mouth puff as though trying to solve for x without scratch paper, delivered himself of a single non-descriptive line about marketing in Redmond, and then made a joke — gracious chap — to the effect that in his free time “I just do what she tells me” and pointed to his young spouse.

I was suddenly grateful that I had seen him building a garden box like mine this summer, now full of thriving plants, and I steered the conversation into that more sensible arena, and Mike walked away to get a beer. But the light went on in my head.

"Let's not kill each other, how 'bout." August II of Poland and Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

I suddenly understood — right at that instant — that in social situations I use social forms that are no longer valid. In fact, it’s not particular forms that are invalid, but the formalism entirely. The way I learned it, first we shake hands. This establishes trust, because the hands are used to do harm to one’s enemies and are occupied most often by a weapon of one kind or another. A handshake — the open, empty hand extended — is the pledge of peace, or at least truce. Next, I honor you by asking something specific but sufficiently non-threatening about you. That’s why we have jobs, so we can ask this. You answer and fill in that information for a while, then return the ball to me by asking what I do. So then I go, and in this way we get to know each other a little bit, though in a formal way. And war is averted.

At some point this formal introductory pas de deux might lead into a more “authentic” conversation, as when your work with data mining software prompts me to ask how random information can be intelligently searched, and my documentation of geospatial imaging software gets you curious about who our customers are, that they should need to see the writing on a number 2 pencil lying on the ground in Tunis. But the entry point is very formal, and this formalism just doesn’t fly anymore. Kids these days… they just don’t roll that way.

* * * *

I’m baffled still as to how young people today get their conversations started, but what I’m beginning to see is that they get there without the formalized intro steps. Those, I believe, they regard as inauthentic. Authenticity is the watchword of the new generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, as I see it. Mike and Simon were probably just picking up a conversation that may have started organically months before. My walking up and asking what Simon “did” was like a big cloud of weird perfume wafting in from over the fence. I keep wanting to laugh and cry about this at the same time. It was such a doof moment for me. I’ve always been quick on my social feet, deft in conversations even when dumped midstream where I don’t know the lingo.

But more and more frequently I encounter the feeling that the most basic grid I overlay on social situations for navigation cannot be trusted anymore. The topography has become unlike the earth I knew. Is this what becoming a fuddy-duddy is really like for everyone? Do I begin to seek out people who understand what I’m doing when I extend my hand? Do I start distancing myself from young people because I cannot break the code? And isn’t the code designed at some level to keep me out anyway? Every generation rewrites the code for this purpose, so that they can disenfranchise the generation before and wrest from them the sceptre of world dominion. It has to be this way. No generation, certainly not mine, gives it up willingly to those following.

The penitent man just accepts the process of aging, that's what the penitent man does. Indy narrowly escapes decapitation.

But I am just starting out as a father. I have to figure this out. I can’t go play golf with men my age whose kids are finally in college. I’m not complaining. I’m looking frantically around, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade trying to figure out which stepping stones to tread on so that he will not fall through the floor while also trying to dodge the whirling head-cutter-offer discs. But see, that’s a reference from 1989, and maybe now there are no coded stones to step on. Maybe you just wing it.  



The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt