John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
5 Ninthmonth 17829
It’s hard for me to imagine that the bank robbery happened only a week ago! My affidavit was sufficient at the trial, since I did not press a personal complaint (I don’t think anyone really does that anyway), and the would-be armed robber is now in rehabilitation. So all is right with the world again!
As you know, I am presently employed as an English language translator and discussion group leader at the Department of Earth Studies at Snodgrass University, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with beginning students lately. No, it’s not a demotion, they reduced my work load temporarily so that I can participate in the “experiential degree” program. I’ve passed all my oral and written exams, and I hope to be given a Doctorate in Earth Studies in the next couple of months. At least this will cure my feeling of educational inferiority in a society that considers a doctorate degree to be routine!
I’ve spent a lot of time tutoring Dani, a very promising student who just can’t get the hang of English. His guidance counselors have long since given up suggesting that he specialize in either Chinese or German. They are more similar to the Homelander languages he speaks, and the cultures would probably be easier for him. However, he refuses to change.
“Okay, Dani,” I began, opening the English Conversation Primer, “Let’s begin with Lesson Two. Two businessmen named Mr. Brown and Mr. Green meet on the street by chance and begin a conversation.”
“Is it common for people to be named after colors?” he asked.
“Not particularly,” I answered, “the authors of this book chose these surnames only because they’re easy to pronounce. Now you read the part of Mr. Green, and I will read the part of Mr. Brown.”
“Okay,” he agreed affably and began, “let’s see: ‘Good morning Mr. Brown, how are you today?’”
“I am just fine, Mr. Green,” I read in response, “and how are you?”
“Things could not be better!” Dani read, but I instructed him to read it again with a little less stress on the word ‘be.’ After he had mastered that sentence, he looked up at me and said, “I have noticed in these conversations that everyone is always fine. What do you say if you aren’t feeling well, or if things are bad for you?”
“You still say that things are good,” I explained. “This interchange is socially required, and does not convey any information. It is quite common to begin a conversation with a question about the other person’s condition, and the response is always that it is fine.”
“That makes no sense!” Dani observed. “Why make all that noise if you don’t mean anything by it?”
“Think of it as a social ritual,” I said impatiently. His face brightened with enlightenment, since he understood social forms quite well. I continued reading, “I haven’t seen you in a very long time, Mr. Green.”
Dani peered carefully into the book and responded by reading, “We should get together for lunch some day!”
I smiled my approval, but we did have to go over the pronunciation a few times. Then I responded from my book by reading, “That is a fine idea! Let’s do that!”
Dani read his part, and we continued. He seemed to get better as we went along, but suddenly he stopped. “How do Mr. Brown and Mr. Green intend to have lunch?” he asked. “They never agreed on a date, a time, or a restaurant!”
“That is also a social ritual among businesspeople in English-speaking cultures on Earth,” I answered, “Neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Green intend to have lunch together, at least not within the scope of this conversation.”
“Oh,” he said in small voice, and we continued. Finally we got to the very end of the conversation, and he read, “Let’s get together again soon! We don’t see each other enough!”
I read the response, and I thought that part of the lesson was over, but Dani had a puzzled look on his face.
“I suppose that these two gentlemen did not make arrangements to meet again, because it’s just another empty social formula,” he said.
“That’s right!” I exclaimed with pride, “I think you are beginning to understand this!”
“No, I don’t understand it at all,” Dani replied. “Could this sort of conversation actually take place?”
I assured him that it could, and that it does, many times over.
“Then I am confused as to why the two gentlemen even talk to each other!” he said. “First, they ask each other how they are, but they don’t want to find out. Then they agree that they should have lunch, even though they don’t want to. Then they decide to engage in common social activities more often, but make no arrangements! It would be a miracle or a coincidence if these two men ever saw each other again!”
“That happens quite often,” I said, but he was making me a little uneasy about this.
“So, what I want to know, is why did they do all this talking, if they knew in advance that they would say nothing?”
So I reminded Dani what he had learned about human social dynamics—posturing, networking, power plays, backstabbing, gossip, competition, alliances, friends, and enemies. We wound up the discussion by recognizing that such apparently ‘empty’ conversations actually play a vital social role in reinforcing the horizontal social roles of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ and the vertical roles of ‘superior’ and ‘subordinate’.
There was a gleam of understanding in Dani’s eyes. “I get it now! The conversation has no meaning, but it helps to establish or reinforce the social relationships between the participants!”
I agreed very heartily with that, and congratulated Dani on his insight. Then I went one step further, “If Mr. Brown and Mr. Green were involved in some enterprise together, and they just walked past each other without speaking, each would conclude that the relationships between them were breaking down.”
Dani made some noise which indicated to me that he understood, but not completely.
“For example,” I said, “Don’t you stop and talk to acquaintances that you pass on the street here in Thorgelfayne?”
“Oh yes, but apparently for a different reason,” he said. “If I run into someone I know, we stop and chat; but we exchange real information! Not empty social rituals!”
Of course, there are social formulas in Thorgelfayne, but by and large he was right. “But if a friend rushed by without speaking, wouldn’t you be concerned about the friendship?”
“Not necessarily,” Dani answered. “My first reaction is that my friend is probably deeply preoccupied in some weighty matter, and simply didn’t notice me.”
“I see,” I said. This did match up with my experience quite well. People here do stop and chat wherever possible, but no one is offended if you don’t. They might be concerned, but never offended. In fact, as I think about it, I can’t even recall having a conversation mandated by ‘social ritual.’ That’s probably what made Homeland seem so overwhelmingly caring when I first arrived. It’s like a blanket on a cold night; it feels best at first, but even after you get used to it, you wouldn’t part with it for anything!
Dani was thinking something out during my little reverie. He began slowly, as though he were still gathering his thoughts. “Humans and Homelanders both stop and speak with acquaintances on the street,” he said, “but it appears that there is a subtle difference in their motivation.” He paused for a moment, and his face lit up as though he had achieved some grand insight. “I am certain that I am overstating this, but humans appear to view each other as potential enemies, so they are careful to reinforce social relationships so that nothing will go wrong. Homelanders, on the other hand, view each other as potential friends. It is a very subtle difference, but it explains all this empty conversation business!” he proclaimed.
I sought words to contradict his viewpoint, but I couldn’t find any. I did manage to say that he had oversimplified his case, but that he was on the right trail.
Dani noticed that I was gasping for words. “I’m sorry. I totally forgot that you are a human! I hope you will forgive me.”
Forgive him? After that flattery, how could I fail to forgive him? Gosh, to think that someone actually forgot I was human!