THE SEMIOTICS OF REGARD
Today’s New York Times ran one of those borderline-quaint regional features about the decline of manners in the South (“A Last Bastion of Civility”). I suppose it’s not easy to find an apt source for the requisite photos that must accompany such an article, but my heart sank when I saw pix of tragic cotillion-prep kids complete with white gloves, looking like miniatures of their great-grandparents, posed in strained pairings of boys and girls who clearly wished they were out head-butting a soccer ball or dreaming up an iPhone app. And of course, all of them are Caucasian. The subtext being that old codes of Southern civility are phony foistings on/for the children of upper-middle-class whites. They’re an empty charade.
Well, those pictures (and those children, god bless them), do not evoke the Old School civility that I remember. I didn’t go to tea-dance class. I didn’t study etiquette. What I did do was “speak.” That’s how my mother taught it: we were to “speak” when first meeting anyone–friend or newcomer–and if we didn’t, we’d get a little tug on the elbow. “Speak!” my mother would remind me, and I’d say, “Good morning” or “Good evening” to whomever was passing by. I remember this being particularly important–particularly powerful–in settings where I was among strangers. It is quite beautiful to be bound to folks we don’t know through a greeting whose meaning of mutual respect is shared.
And yes, I always said, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” That never rang hollow for me, even as a child. Certainly when I was being reprimanded or sent to my room, my rueful “Ye-e–es, Ma’am” had an edge to it. But I am fortunate not to have those niceties tied to memories of hypocrisy or oppression as some do. In my family and among my circle, the code of respecting one’s elders was absolute. That did not mean not questioning: but the tone of such questioning was to be respectful and the spirit, one of settling an issue not insulting an adversary. That’s a state-of-mind I sorely miss these days with people of all ages.
It wasn’t so much about manners, this storied civility, it was about “regard.” I love that word in its many meanings. William Ferris, folklorist, cites the “distancing and maintaining space” that manners artificially establish. “Consider what that politeness veils,” he says. Fair warning. But maintaining a little bit of distance is also what permits regard in its most literal sense. With distance, we can see each other–and communicate that seeing. To be held in another’s gaze is to be held in regard, even high regard. That all feels fresh to me. The surfeit of familiarity around us has, proverbially, bred contempt. We come in at each other without invitation. Or pass as ships in the night. We do not (and such things come with training), interrupt our selfish agendas to acknowledge each other. We simply blunder on.
These Old School values and experiences I can only hint at here. Suffice it to say, they weren’t always window dressing. I too despise false falderal. Where politesse reinforces servility, it’s quite sinister. Furthermore, I’m as fond as the next modern girl of the unwinding of formality in our world. I’m not nostalgic for hose-and-heels, for girdles. But. But. I miss the finer messages in that lost theater of manners. I miss those gestures, universally understood, that say, “I see you,” “I respect you,” person to person, peer to peer, soul to soul.
© i.e. ideas expressed 2011