Everything Must Be Social
It doesn’t take very keen powers of observation to notice that many people in Lake Charles spend large amounts of time sitting in chairs on their front porches.
When I noticed this, the first thing that occurred to me is the thing that still occurs to me, namely, that people sitting on the porch feel that whatever they’re doing there is at the very least more interesting to them than watching television.
For the ordinary person, something that’s more interesting than television must be powerfully attractive. My guess is that what people find so attractive about the Lake Charles front porch experience is conversation with people they know particularly well, and especially relatives.
I don’t think the conversations can be attractive because they’re interesting. After all, the people involved in the conversations are the same people we run into and talk with every day. You can judge for yourself how many conversations you have every day and, of those, how many are memorable.
I don’t think it’s the quality of the front porch conversations that’s considered valuable. What’s valuable is the fact that the conversation is taking place.
I’m guessing there’s a way of life that works in such a way that social experience is always considered preferable to any experience that’s not social. In this way of life, almost anything one can do in the company of another person is to be preferred to almost anything one can do alone.
This way of life can develop, I’m guessing, to the point that the social life comes to be considered the only life worth living.
I don’t mean that this is a conscious preference. I do mean that a person brought up with this view of life will abandon a perfectly enjoyable solitary occupation if he notices that someone else is on the front porch — or on the deck or in the family room or back yard or driveway — or anywhere within sight.
One downside of thinking that the only experience worth having is the social one is that one may go too far in his or her efforts to introduce the social into situations that aren’t social.
One example is the habit of talking out loud. Let’s suppose I think — on an unconscious level — that all that matters is social experience. I do what I can to socialize every experience I have. As I’m walking about in an office building or some other public setting, I come into the presence of a person who’s a stranger or who I know doesn’t like small talk.
But, to repeat, I believe that all experience should be made social if at all possible. So I talk out loud. I put into audible words whatever happens to be going through my mind at the time. I say, for example, that I’m going to the place that I’m obviously going to. If I’m obviously leaving the building, I say I’m leaving. If I’m going into Mike’s office, I say something such as, “Gonna see Mike …” If I’m coming into the office, and it’s extremely hot outside, I say, “Man, it’s hot,” or one of a dozen equivalent expressions about hot weather. If the weather’s been changeable, I say, “I don’t know how to dress for this weather,” or half a dozen interchangeable sayings.
I’d think the habit of talking out loud is almost universally disliked. Talking out loud almost always produces banal statements of the obvious or trivial. The person on the receiving end may struggle against his profound indifference about the comments in order to formulate some sort of polite response, even if it’s just “um-hmm.” Or the person may ignore the remarks altogether — a response that’s likely to make the speaker feel awkward.
This is just one example of the kinds of uncomfortable interactions that can result when individuals accord undue importance to social experience. If I feel that the social life is the only life that matters, I may try to force a conversation on someone who’d usually be glad to talk but who, at the present, happens to be tired or in a bad mood.
I may try to keep a person in a conversation when the person is obviously in a hurry to leave or attend to some matter he considers pressing.
I may extend what might otherwise have been a brief, friendly conversation to the point that it drags and becomes a nuisance to all parties involved. I may begin to talk about personal matters to someone who doesn’t know me well and doesn’t care to know about my personal life.
I may, likewise, talk in a highly emotional way to someone who doesn’t know me well and who is, therefore, frightened by the intensity of my speech.
If I invest too heavily in the social aspects of life, I may never become aware that there are some situations in which socializing is beneficial and some in which it isn’t. I don’t realize that there are some problems that can be solved through conversation and some that can’t. I may never come to understand that it’s not necessary to converse about every single thing that arises in conscious experience.
Some creative and intellectual experiences are improved by conversation and collaboration; on the other hand, some are only possible in solitude. With creative ventures, those involved may have to work seriously to determine just what role conversation can best play or whether it should play any role.
People who value only social experience may find it hard to understand and accept the fact that many people are introverts. Introverts who are comfortable in their own skin are people who’ve long since realized that solitude provides them with ample pleasures and satisfactions.
Still, introversion, like other ways of living, is probably an approach to life no one would consciously choose simply because the disadvantages of introversion so heavily outweigh the advantages. Introversion is almost certainly a state of existence that’s predetermined through genetics. Introverts who thrive do so because they make a conscious choice to do so in spite of the condition.
An ideal person would move smoothly, calmly and skillfully from solitude to society and back. Whether he sought a social situation or not, he’d handle each one with easy assurance. He would not say too much or too little; he would always choose the tone that’s appropriate for the words.
He would also be gracious when someone has introduced social behavior into a situation where there’s no room for it. In other words, he would be a gentleman or she would be a gentlewoman. But, to state the obvious, such people are rare — even in places where a high priority is placed on what’s called “higher education.”
Each culture has its weak and strong points. To the degree that the weak points become too pervasive and powerful, the culture suffers, and the people suffer along with it.
It’s rare that groups of any significant size consciously decide to eliminate or lessen the impact of a culture’s weak points. Even when the people of a culture suffer severely, they often retain the hindrances they were taught to treasure in their youth.
We know that something once happened in Salem to persuade a big chunk of the populace that witch-hunting had to end. Perhaps the powerful leaders behind the practice found themselves threatened in some fundamental way. Perhaps leaders realized that continuation of the practice would eventually affect the population in such a way that the infrastructure would break down. Perhaps inconsistencies in the practice threatened to undermine the credibility of authority figures.
Some historians may know the answer. At any rate, leaders in Salem made a very conscious and very rapid decision to stop witch hunting. It wasn’t a practice that changed simply because styles were changing. It wasn’t something that happened because “the times they [were] a-changin’.”
It’s extremely rare for an individual to question a deeply ingrained cultural practice because it’s caused awkward social situations repeatedly. The people who get by most easily are those who never notice awkward situations in the first place or who are for the most part unaffected by them.
It is contingent on the sensitive soul to grin and bear the awkward social situations that could be avoided by the use of objective analysis or common sense. Social situations that are awkward and unnecessary are like splinters or paper cuts or sore muscles or stubbed toes. The less attention we pay to them, the better off we’ll be.