I have always wondered whether the (possibly pernicious) mechanism that makes me see myself through the eyes of my interlocutor – and find myself either playing the part I think they have attributed me or fighting with all my might to get out of the role I think I see – is a mechanism that all human beings share and struggle with. While I truly believe empathy is the thing that holds society together, I’m sometimes afraid that the mechanism works even (or mostly) in the absence of empathy, on a sort of guessing game based on attribution of values and interpretation of signs. If the guessing part went wrong, then you start playing or avoiding a role that you basically assumed yourself, which can lead to ridiculous results.
Of course, the socially accepted answer is `don’t play a role to begin with, BE YOUR *** SELF`, which we get fed in large spoons although, if you think about it, nothing and nobody is ever genuinely itself. My self might not want to smile to the neighbour just to acknowledge that I know he is the neighbour even though we never spoke. My self might not want to stand up after dinner and help take the dishes into the kitchen (and many other selves don’t feel they have to do it either 🙂 ), but it is polite and it is a sign of friendliness to my host, a sign of `a well-bred person` and all sorts of other signs that are part of a social role we take on in relation to other people, on top of `being ourselves`. So I’m not questioning the mechanism itself. I’m questioning a couple of presuppositions that make it work the way it does.
One presupposition is that everyone is essentially self-centred, therefore might want something out of the relationship other than to simply have the relationship. While this is fair enough, because we are self-centred beings, and we may be in relations with other people in order to gain things for ourselves, the suspicion of desire of personal gain that one needs to appease by default bothers me. Politeness is a way of solving this issue daily: `Shall we go here or there?` `Oh, I don’t mind, whatever you feel like!`. `Does anyone want the last piece of cheese?` `No, go ahead, please!`. `Do you think this or that?` `Well, I think rather this, but that is not because I don’t think the other side has a valid point…` and so on. As long as there is a distance of suspicion about possible uneven personal gain between two people, politeness is a must.
Another presupposition (possibly a branch of the first one) is that the choices one makes represent an implicit negative judgment of all the other choices in the world, especially if the choices are valued differently in society. I understand the suspicion (again) of snobishness that the educated person needs to appease in a dialogue with a person with less education. But the translation of our own insecurities about the choices we have made in suspicions about what our interlocutors think of us seems such an improductive mechanism. Plus, there are plenty of situations in which one’s choice is simply one’s choice – wearing red does not necessarily mean you think all grey-wearing people are mousy, long hair doesn’t necessarily mean that you find short-haired people boring (for men)/too bold (for women in a certain age bracket), just as keeping your job as a mom does not necessarily mean you think people who opt out of one in order to raise children are any less valuable to the world or to yourself. Again, the only lubricant I am aware of is the building of trust by lots of politeness.
Which brings me to trust. If a relationship is built and it is based on trust, if you believe the other will not think less of you if you allow some of the social role to take a step back and if you do not feel threatened by them, should there not be a decrease in the amount of politeness in the relationship? Is there no point at which the game of suspicion-politeness and the distance it implies can be dropped? Is the step back to `a little more ourselves` (I know, still a construct) not the logical consequence of friendship? Or does that leave us vulnerable to the fact that we might actually just intrinsically be horrible people?