Sunday, October 11, 2009

ethics of falsified pleasantries

During my last while teaching, I became entrenched with the idea that most public interaction is absolutely dependent on the perpetual exchange of pleasantries between the same people on a daily basis. It was observed that a substantial amount of the time these were falsified statements or falsified interests, both on my own part and on the part of others towards me and others. The more that this was observed the more it was rejected. Once something in a sociological realm is noticed, it tends to make itself prevalent on a regular basis, it is like if you buy a car then you notice all of the other cars like that one on the road.

The ethical question arose: is it better to go along with these falsified interactions without regard to their existence or to partake in the common conformity that is this way of behaving? It would be hard to argue for a situation that encourages people to only say what is really going on in their mind at all times. Society as we know it would crumble, showing how much we are dependent on these pretenses. Resentment would abound, cooperation would be hindered, etc. That is the extreme that you argue on would be self defeating.

What I am proposing here is an openness to speak one's mind in a constructive way when confronted by someone and in a situation that presently subversively demands the exchange of falsified pleasantries. When someone finds oneself interacting with someone who has just spent time and money on altering one's appearance (new hairdo, piercing, tattoo, etc.) or walking by someone on the street who you are acquainted with but not particularly care for, which is the way to go? The falsified route or the honest route?

In the case of the new hairdo: if someone is really either flat-out asking or you can read on their face that they are fishing for compliments or opinion, what do they gain by saying that they look improved. For something like a hairdo, something semi-permanent, what is the harm in saying that it is not flattering, that it clashes with the shape of their head, or that bright orange is not a hair color that one is typically drawn to? Would it not be more of a service to be honest, critique the alteration, after all it is only a single opinion, and we know what they are like....
But then that is the truth in your eyes, who he/she looks to you to relay any other information would be untruthful. I do acknowledge that much of society is based on white lies, this falling into that category.

In the case of passing an acquaintance on the street: instead of stopping and asking how their sick cat is doing, why not just say "hello" and keep walking? Chances are that the other person does not want to have the awkward conversation any more than you do. You both would be doing each other a favor. It is not rude but more efficient than the waist of time that would be the conversation when neither party has any interest in the blabber coming from the other side.

Is truth the ultimate end to an ethical evaluation? If so, refusing the norm of exchanging pleasantries when the exchange itself is not a pleasant experience would refute the principles behind this brand of ethics. Is the ultimate consideration the feelings and outlook that are generated by the opposite party during the exchange? If so than the falsified angle would be the correct choice. I am in the camp that the little white lies of some pleasantries are a small scale version of the oppressive natures that are found within human society. This is to say to continue to avoid malicious interactions and to maintain a sense of civil interaction but not constrain oneself to expressing falsities when the receiver of such information would easily decipher it as such. But in reality that is this established system of hollow praise and interest, the easiest thing is to just go with the flow of what people expect even when their expectations are to give the predictable answer that does not lead them anywhere challenging or intriguing.


  1. Anonymous11.10.09

    I definitely agree that there is too much passive agreement in our world today, Biggs. Not enough people truly take delight in intellectual dissension. The ones that agree for the sake of agreement do not benefit themselves in anyway, other than avoiding conflict. It's sort of a way to flight instead of fighting, but without the running away. -TROUTFISH (sorry I can't sign in anyway other than anonymous):)

  2. Well Joe I think its more like we're uncomfortable with people we don't know. People basically size each other up and sometimes exagerate our experiences.

    Or it could our memory recall is warping our thinking so we are retelling a time with low accuracy. I guess this type of falsifying is either out of your hands or out of your judgement.

  3. In response Troutfish:
    I am definitely not advocating a more hostile commonplace public interaction. The fight or flight response is an interesting angle. Flight could be, in this particular case, not acknowledging the person at all and possibly accelerating one's rate of travel to avoid any possible contact, which could be see as rude, something else that I am not advocating, rudeness. A fight response could be to tell the person that you don't care about how they are or that you don't want to waste your time on them, again a rude response perhaps. I guess what I am idealizing is a middle ground. A feeling that we do not need to go out of our way to feel like we are interested in people that we are not. This would maintain the dignity of the pleasantries.

  4. In response to Chernoff:
    I can see how the falsification could be seen as out of our hands and judgment. That we are conditioned to carry ourselves with a falsity in the public domain as to keep some abstract sense of order on a scale larger than our own. But the falsities are in our hands because they are in our actions. We may be ignorant to how saturated they are in our daily experience but once acknowledged and understood as something that are not really in standing with personal interests or ideologies of conduct, ideas can be brought to light for a wider discourse to uncover parts of this behavior that may have been previously un-realized.

  5. To clarify.....
    I advocate pleasantries in most circumstances. I try, and think that it is not only appropriate but honorable, to take the time to be pleasant to the clerk behind the perpetual desk at whatever store. I typically as how he or she is doing even if it is not of particular interest. This falls under a scenario of stranger to stranger interaction that does contribute to a large scale sense of order mentioned in the above comment. This is where the widespread petpeeve of someone talking on a mobile phone during a public interaction that disrupts any dignified response to participating in the social realm of humanity. I am specifically talking about acquaintances where uncomfortableness may play a roll but if disinterestedness is more of culprit than why act interested. Do we project that that is how we would want others to treat us, with false interest as opposed to no interest at all?