Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's Wrong with New York?

Imagine yourself a cultural anthropologist a few centuries hence. You are studying New York City at the turn of the millennium, trying to figure out how it lost its global preeminence. How did New York lose its place as center of the world ?

You have been digging up shards of broken pottery, have examined scores of movies and television shows, and are hard at work on the print media. Still the question is hanging over you: What went wrong with New York?

Then, unexpectedly, you light on a passage by Naomi Wolf, a leading feminist of the time, describing a strange custom that had metastasized through a segment of New York's elite. Link here.

Would do you make of it?

In Wolf's words: "Consider this typical exchange among successful, affluent, educated women in Manhattan where I live. These are women who have everything that feminism, Western culture and consumer society define as highly valuable: income; choices; stylishness; fascinating, high-status work; rich and equitable, if demanding, family lives. Yet among themselves the question 'How are you?' is almost never followed by 'Great.'

"In fact, if someone in this realm asks me how I am and I smile and say, 'Everything's good, thank heavens! Kids are healthy, partner's great, work is going well,' people gaze at me blankly for a beat, as if I have just gotten off the bus from a small town in a forgotten agricultural region. For them, it is more socially acceptable to answer the question with a list of complaints: too busy, workload too heavy, contractors on the new addition taking forever. If you are closer friends, you can add teenagers acting out and college applications too demanding."

Some of you who do not live in New York might have found some of my posts about the culture of complaint to be a bit exaggerated, so perhaps Wolf's experience will show that I did not make it all up.

I hope you will not be disappointed if I do not take up Wolf's theoretical challenge and read her description of this strange and disconcerting custom as a reflection on feminism. I do tend to believe that feminism does promote incivility, but I also believe that it belongs to a larger countercultural movement that has been working long and hard to undermine civility, formality, respect, and common courtesy.

If you are a cultural anthropologist you will be most interested in the way the everyday ritual of greeting people, a ritual that connects people socially, was deformed into something that is, to Naomi Wolf, off-putting. You will be asking how the simple question, How are you?, became an invitation to pour out your heart about everything that is wrong in your life.

You might well conclude that this ritual deformity represents everything that was wrong with New York. Clearly, New Yorkers had purposefully abandoned the art of getting along.

Human connection, the affirmation of our belonging to a social group, occurs through formalities like the ritual exchange of greetings. How are you? is not, as Miss Manners has been at pains to point out, an invitation to assert your individuality.

Formal greetings require that you share good news, that you put a positive spin on things. You want to lift up your friend's spirit, make him happy to see you, and make him look forward to seeing you again. You do not, off the top, want to burden him with your problems.

When you smile and greet a friend with the news that your life is going well, you are making yourself more likeable. If you were wondering why I have been emphasizing the importance of being likeable, you can see from Naomi Wolf's experience that far too many sophisticated New Yorkers are anything but.

In a social world saturated by narcissism no one seems to care about how anyone else feels. Everyone seems to believe that the only authentic communication involves complaining about everything that is going wrong.

I should mention that these women are also engaging in ritualized bragging. They are asserting that they have full lives, with the complicated problems that torment the well-healed. They are certainly being rude, but they are also asserting their positions on a social hierarchy.

Of course, bragging is just another form of narcissism. More importantly, these people find it so important to complain that they have incorporated it into the most innocent social ritual... the gesture of greeting a friend.

Wherever did they get such an idea? However did they learn such a habit?

It is clear to me, as a denizen of this world, that they learned it in therapy. Some of you have suggested that I have in these posts been offering something of a caricature of therapy and the therapy culture. Now you see, via Naomi Wolf, that I may have a point.

I do not want to suggest that all therapists teach their patients to be chronic complainers. But, as I said a few days ago, if a Harvard psychiatrist has to put up a sign in his office saying: Thou Shalt Not Whine, there must be quite a bit of it around.

Whatever happens in the offices of individual therapists, we do know that the culture creates expectations about therapy and the culture defines the right and wrong ways to meet and greet other people in the course of a day. We all know by now that therapists who establish a good human connection with their patients provide better and more effective treatment.

If so, they must be spending a large part of their time countering the noxious influences that persist in the therapy culture, and the bad habits that this culture has made into common discourtesy.

Even if a therapist has learned from cognitive theory to teach his patients to balance the good with the bad, the fact remains that far too many people, influenced either by personal experiences of therapy or the therapy culture at large, have come to believe that they should reject formality in favor of authenticity. And they have come to believe that complaining about everything that is wrong is the most authentic communication.

Hopefully, future cultural anthropologists will be able to sort it all out.

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