Monday, October 4, 2021

Be Polite to Your Elders

Janan Ganesh writes a column for the Financial Times. It is consistently interesting and engaging, though seriously underappreciated. I suspect you have never heard of him. More’s the pity.

Anyway, last Saturday Ganesh offered up some reflections on rhetoric, or the lack of same. By his lights, and I would be at pains to disagree, young people today do not know how to express themselves. They speak like vulgar louts and expect everyone to respect them for as much. 

Rhetoric, I am sure you know, is the art of persuasion. Ganesh recommends that we go back to teaching it to children in school. I heartily concur.

Surely, he is correct to say that most young people today do not know how to formulate a letter to improve their chances of receiving a reply, to engage a productive a conversational exchange or even discuss doing business together.

There are good and bad ways of expressing yourself. If you merely imagine that you need but get something off your chest, if you are rude, crude and lewd, your prospects, both personal and professional will be seriously compromised.

One suspects, without having any evidence at hand, that the television series like Downton Abbey was enormously popular because people knew how to converse with each other, with wit, with intelligence and with respect. 

Then Ganesh takes out after the mania over self-help books, which are not a novelty, but differ from the older version in one sense. The older versions of self-help books involved learning good manners, the better to function in society.

Today’s books seem to be all about therapy. As Ganesh astutely notes, they involve pointing you into your mind and away from of social commerce. He writes:

The flaw in most self-help is that it dwells on the interior life, rather than outward technique. To exhort someone into a state — of confidence, of Stoicism, of anything — at least in a lasting way, is hard. But small adjustments in what they do can transform their outcomes. And from those real-life gains comes the gradual change in inner state.

Failing to use proper terms of respect, failing to express yourself intelligently and succinctly will compromise your career prospects.

Ganesh writes:

I have seen enough meetings, parties, job interviews, broadcast slots, panel events and dates to sense which habits of speech harm a person’s standing with others, sometimes without either side quite knowing it. They include the filler words “like” and, in England, “sort of”, often pronounced, with nervous speed, “siddiv”. They include starting a sentence with, “I guess . . . ” and ending it with, “Does that make sense?” They include, above all, the interrogative tone in non-interrogative statements.

What links these familiar but far from exhaustive examples is their disclosure of self-doubt. And not the endearing kind. “Like” stems from a deep fear of pauses, lest the other person stops listening. Upspeak is a constant probing for approval. 

The aesthetic case against a lot of modern speech is easy to mount. The challenge is to convince people of the strategic stakes: that mere avoidance of the glitches above will raise their perceived stature.

In order to get along with other people you need to know how to talk to them, even how to persuade them to do something you want them to do.

In today’s America everyone seems to believe that people refuse to do what they are told, already an insulting, infantilizing approach to persuasion, because they have received misinformation. If you refuse to acknowledge that another person has a right to refuse to take your advice, you are not being very persuasive. And when you are too stupid to be able to persuade them you will be reduced to trying to force people to do what you want them to do.

Another is that a career can hinge on meetings and other “performances” between the actual doing of work. When someone’s added value is so hard to delineate, the spoken word becomes a clue. And this, to stress, is just the professional risk of modern speech habits. It says nothing of the social and romantic costs of sounding like a teenager from Encino.

Ah yes, you do not want to sound like a teenager from Encino. 

I don’t wish I had had, when young, some protein shake-reviewer on YouTube urging me to live in alignment with my values, dude. What I wish I had had was someone to tell me that nothing — not eye-contact, not spread arms — conveys confidence like a mid-sentence pause. Or that a flat, declarative tone in a room full of upspeakers is such an advantage as to be tantamount to cheating. This, which we moderns learn through trial and error, if at all, is what an Athenian would have recognised as rhetoric. It is a life skill, not just or even mainly a political one.

When and why our culture stopped treating it as such, others will know. But the victims are all around us. To speak commandingly does not require a John Updike vocabulary or grammatical exactitude. It does not entail the crushing of regional accents and demotic idioms. I offer Manchester’s own Noel Gallagher as a model to emulate, and legion Sloanes as the inverse. As for America, many decades into upspeak, no one who has that tic of the elite campuses and the modish industries has had a sniff of the White House. The people have, in whatever style, spoken.

Of course, Ganesh is British, but stationed in America. For those who care to have a glimpse at the appalling behavior of British teenagers, I offer up a column by Philippa Perry, advice columnist for the Guardian. If you want to know why young people are not going to get anywhere in this world, why they are incapable of forming relationships or holding down jobs, take a glimpse at this letter:

I am writing to ask your advice about our 22-year-old granddaughter. We house-sit for my daughter and her family when they are away. They have dogs, but don’t like to put them in kennels. We have always got on well with our granddaughter and indulged her, along with her brothers. But she is spoilt. Last month while we were there to house-sit, there was shouting between her and my husband. She didn’t like the fact that my husband had disciplined our dog when we arrived – but our dog was jumping up.

I know my husband has a short temper, but it blows over quickly. Her reaction was over the top. She stormed off and wouldn’t look at him. She asked him to leave the lounge as she wanted to watch a film. She actually arranged for a friend to call every two days to check the dogs were being looked after OK, as if we are untrustworthy. She texted me to say we were not to go into her room and she referred to my husband by his name and not “Grandad”.

My daughter and her husband ignored her behaviour. I think they should at least tell her off. She owes her grandfather an apology.

As you know, such behavior would never have been tolerated in Downton Abbey.

Unfortunately, Perry is purveying therapy culture values and thus is working to destroy this young adult's life, even before it starts. She has no sense of rudeness and believes that granddaughter is merely expressing her feelings. 

Your granddaughter is an adult and she’s allowed to say what she feels.

In truth, the young woman is making a blithering fool of herself, but such behavior, redolent of disrespect will turn her into a useless slug.

Now, Perry joins in the chorus of contempt for the grandfather, calling him the patriarch-- which she clearly is using derisively. Might we suggest that her own rhetorical skills need some serious improvement. How does she imagine that a young worker dealing with her elderly manager or boss is going to advance her career by adopting feminist slang and by looking at her boss with contempt?

Perry even recommends that the “patriarch” apologizes:

And perhaps the patriarch could allow himself to say something like the following to her: “I have been reading about ‘dog whispering’ and tried it out and my dog is behaving much better now. Thank you for showing me there was another way. And I really should not have shouted at the dog and nor should I have shouted you down. I’m used to being in charge and I need to realise that I can have equal relationships where I allow myself to be influenced by others, even if they are decades younger. In my day, dads and granddads knew it all, and yet it was all bluff – I sucked it up, but when I reflect on it I realise I was taking their dominance of me out on you. I really don’t have to carry that on for another generation…”

Or something like that and then I’m sure you will all get on just fine.

If granddaughter expects serious adults to apologize to her, she is headed for oblivion. Perry has disgraced herself and has insulted the intelligence of her readers.

The moral of the story is: be polite to your elders or shut the fuck up.


Sam L. said...

Geeee. I thought the term was "blithering idiot".

"Up-speakers" sound to me as if they're asking questions, badly.

Be polite to your elders; they might lay some money on you from time to time. Impolite things said will NOT, for now, and possibly NEVER. Your choice... Your funeral... And yes, I know that's a "downer".

Suzannemarie said...

Dogs like hierarchy. Dogs like leaders. Dogs know all about topdogs and underdogs. Some dogs whisper, most dogs don't. If you want to fight patriarchy, best NOT to start with dogs.

370H55V said...

You obliterated your case with the last sentence.

JPL17 said...

Replying to 370H55V:

I respectfully disagree. The last sentence is directed at the spoiled children of the world. It needs to be blunt and even somewhat crude to be effective, since it communicates a hard life lesson to minds that have never grown up and need to be awakened. As such, I actually think it's an example of highly effective rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

^^^ Lots of declarative statements.
Seeks to dominate the room.
Are you secretly The Top Dog?.

Have you ever owned or cared for a dog for any realistic length of time?

Or perhaps you only have opinions for pets? ( <<< Upspeak<<<looking for approval).