Monday, November 9, 2009

Be polite, or we'll know exactly which group you belong to...

I went to a see a play the other day. Though marketed as a comedy, the play was in fact quite heavy: troubled relationships, troubled lives and the past haunting the present, delivered to the audience in a funny wrapping. And the thirty-something people in the audience laughed here and there, whenever appropriate. Except one. One person laughed at the... er... wrong times?

You know the type: usually in the middle of the room, this person has obviously got it all wrong. They never laugh when everyone else is laughing; they laugh on their own, as loud as they can, enjoying themselves, oblivious to the annoyance they bring upon you...

What's wrong with them, why don't they get it?

But it's so easy to get annoyed with other people, to see the wrongs in them... If only they would follow the rules... the norms... the conventions...

Because, in the end, that's all it comes down to: rules, norms and conventions. Social rules around what is appropriate behavior during a play. Social cues to be read in the play, in the actors' behavior. Social conventions defining what counts as funny, appropriate, acceptable. And laughing on your own, finding your own relationship to a play and to its meaning, that's just not 'legitimate' with us: you have to laugh when the others are laughing, and you have to clap when the others are clapping...

Have you noticed that nobody - and I mean Nobody! - throws rotten tomatoes at actors anymore? Or that nobody shouts at them "You suck! Find another job!" (only Simon Cowell still has that privilege...)? Oh, that would be funny... I fantasized about that during quite a few performances... but I would never have the courage to break the social rules of legitimate behavior. I missed my chance with some hundred years... ah, the time when audiences chatted during a play (gosh, imagine the disorder!) or when they "hooted and jeered" (Gossett, p. 174).

The unwritten yet powerful rules of politeness and legitimate behavior. We can't do without them (really, don't start throwing rotten tomatoes at people you don't like, ok?). Yet they also hide away the real lines of separation under the veil of 'appropriate behavior'. Separation along class lines or majority/minority lines, when the you just 'know' from a person's reaction that s/he's not 'well-mannered' or 'from here'.

Norms, rules, conventions, symbols, words, ways of talking - all of these form for Pierre Bourdieu the 'symbolic capital' through which we communicate. The currency we use to obtain other people's endorsement, support or even love. They position us in the social hierarchy. Our use of them reveals us as 'insiders' or 'outsiders', as 'powerful' or 'power-hungry'.

"To speak is to appropriate one or other of the expressive styles already constituted in and through usage, and objectively marked by their position in a hierarchy of styles which expresses the hierarchy of corresponding social groups" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 54)

And it is not only speech - the choice of words, the way you construct a sentence, a.s.o - but also gestures, postures, proximities; we rely on them to communicate with others. They position us in particular nodes of power structures; and we use them as guides in interpreting other people, in positioning them within the social hierarchy.

In fairness, this time I actually enjoyed this lonely audience member's laughter. But most of the times, I resent it. It's hard to move beyond the resentment: it's way easier to study the social norms and their power dimensions than it is to actually live with them. But I suspect the hardship comes from the rather rigid boundary social groups have constructed around them. Any tresspassing of the boundary, of the 'common sense' and 'social expectations' is troubling and distressing. And it's always easier to point to the "Other" as an "Other", than to be suspicious of your own labelling of people.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press
Gossett, P. (2006) Divas and Scholars: Perfoming Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press

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