In the unaccustomed calm after finishing A Cat Out of Egypt, I’ve been thinking about a process I use in diving into ancient cultures, and how much a part of my thinking it’s become. A great deal of what makes writing fiction possible for me is a discipline I learned from Dr. John N. Jonsson, an extraordinary professor from graduate school: phenomenology. Never heard of it? My recent reflections can take care of that!
After a meeting not long ago with some seriously incompatible new acquaintances, a friend clapped me on the back and said, “Hey, great job with the chit-chat! You must have been doing your phenomenologist thing, acting like you believed every word they said. I didn’t know what to say.”
The comment completely blindsided me. I had taken on a different persona, hoping it might get me through the conversation without offending anyone, but it was a role I had learned growing up among remnants of the Old South—not as a graduate student in world religions. Far from employing a phenomenologist’s skill at participant observation, I had donned the mask of a Southern lady. Yet, my actions looked to my friend like phenomenological techniques.
If I vastly oversimplified the definition of a field phenomenologist, I might say it’s someone who observes the behaviors and practices of another culture while suspending her own cultural bias. As a participant observer, she learns by blending into the observed culture, accepting it as if it were her own, attempting to experience all its phenomena with the eyes of one born to it. She applies no preconceived standards of right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. A phenomenologist does her best to understand a culture and its people on their own terms.
I grew up among Southern Baptist seminary faculty families, where gentle wives from all across the Deep South, born in the early decades of the 20th century, dedicated themselves to being helpmeets and hostesses for their reverend-doctor husbands. In the company of the most accomplished of these ladies, voices were never raised in anger or disagreement, and guests in one’s home were treated like Abraham’s visiting angels. Peculiarities, absurdities, poor manners, and even rudeness were met with smiles, tolerance, and seemingly rapt absorption. These paragons of Southern virtue never succeeded in converting me to their vision of Southern gentility, but I knew the drill—and I can still produce a recognizable facsimile on demand, as long as I don’t have to keep it up for too long.
The more I think about it, my Church Lady and a working phenomenologist do have things in common. Each would greet a manure-encrusted ascetic with the same apparent obliviousness to his odor and appearance. Both would discuss the certain existence of winged hippopotami without batting an eye if the subject were seriously introduced. Neither would contradict beliefs that they personally believed to be nonsense. Each would do her best to allow others to hold center-stage. Dedication to inconspicuousness and the ease of others characterize both roles. Intelligence and focus are essential to both, and each employs a certain amount of deceit, even if benign.
But they are certainly not the same. A skilled phenomenologist blends into her environment with a kind of protective coloration that allows her to appear to belong where she does not. But a Southern lady actively controls her environment with a mixture of charm and solicitude learned at her mother’s knee. The phenomenologist is a loner looking in, but the lady nests securely in the heart of her society’s hearth and home.
I suppose I was disturbed by my friend’s remark because my actions had been unconscious: I had unwittingly taken on the manners of a Southern lady, and used those manners as a phenomenologist would—as protective coloration. I certainly can’t claim the identity as my own, since I’m no longer living in the vanished culture of the Old South, and in any case, I never abided by its rules. Yet neither was I acting as a phenomenologist, attempting to submerge myself in our visitors’ world in order to understand it. I simply adopted a persona to keep the peace and avoid unpleasantness.
But isn’t that what manners have always accomplished? The dilemma in my meeting was that no common etiquette existed for all parties involved. We came from different worlds, although we lived only a few miles apart.
In a time of increasing multiculturalism, rapid change, and widespread individualism, few can rely on old standards and manners to smooth social situations. In a sense, we are all being asked to become self-taught phenomenologists flying by the seat of our pants. But no one living in an urban area is going to learn the social cues of every group they might encounter, from street people to suburban Episcopalians to recent immigrants, to American-born ethnic minorities.
Dear Abby and Miss Manners have been the butts of endless jokes for many years, and rightly so. They have tried to wrap outdated rules of etiquette around America’s diverse population like straightjackets. But what alternatives do we have? Those of us who find ourselves in conversation with people whose ideas and behavior seem at best bizarre, and at worst . . . who can say?
Going back to our meeting, what did my friend see me doing? I was listening. When I asked questions, I did so for clarification, not attack. I didn’t contradict statements I knew or suspected were wrong. I was patient. I expressed interest in our guests’ lives and doings. I complimented them on their successes, and when I was stunned into speechlessness, I just smiled. Consciously, I was mimicking a Southern lady on her best behavior. But unwittingly, perhaps I was just giving our guests room to be
I am not offering the Southern lady as a model for us today. Like anyone fulfilling a social role, she helped maintain the status quo of her society—which in the South meant preserving the privilege and power of select white men at the expense of women, minorities, and working people. Life in the South could be bitter for the disenfranchised. I am saying that my rather haphazard reenactment of a remembered role resulted in unexpected success with both guests and co-workers.
Just as so many of us have lost our sense of connection to the Earth and our non-human relations, we have also lost touch with our extended human family. Individualism may have brought us relief from oppressive social control, but it has also divided us from each other. Dualism, with its gulf between the human and natural worlds, may have fueled industry and urban growth, but its unforeseen results have been devastating. When we see the world around us as nothing more than raw materials for our own consumption, we shouldn’t be surprised that “real” humans become fewer and fewer, until often the only one who truly matters is oneself.
One basic assumption of phenomenology is that common patterns underlie all human behavior, and that if we understand each culture well enough, we can identify those commonalities. But understanding comes first—and it will never come unless we grant other people’s behavior the same respect we give our own. Maybe at the end it all comes down to variations on the golden rule: however you hope to be treated, offer that same consideration to others.
Respect can breed respect.