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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Culture, Etiquette, and Slurping One's Soup

I recall once seeing a recipe for Vietnamese soup claiming that, "This soup is best enjoyed by slurping it, although I have found Westerners are often too uptight to slurp." (The writer was an American, I believe.)

So the writer thought that "Westerners" eat in certain, constrained ways because they are uptight, while the more loosey-goosey people of the rest of the world just shove food in their mouth whatever relaxed way they damn-well pleased. How this person managed to get their shoes on in the morning I'm not sure. Consider this passage from Geertz:

'In Java, for example, where I have done much of my work, the people quite flatly say, "To be human is to be Javanese." Small children, boors, simpletons, the insane, the flagrantly immoral, are said to be ndurung djawa, "not yet Javanese." A "normal" adult capable of acting in terms of the highly elaborate system of etiquette, possessed of the delicate aesthetic perceptions associated with music, dance, drama, and textile design, responsive to the subtle promptings of the divine residing in the stillnesses of each individual's inward-turning consciousness, is sampun djawa, "already Javanese," that is, already human. To be human is not just to breathe; it is to control one's breathing, by yogalike techniques, so as to hear in inhalation and exhalation the literal voice of God pronouncing His own name--"hu Allah." It is not just to talk, it is to utter the appropriate words and phrases in the appropriate social situations in the appropriate tone of voice and with the appropriate evasive indirection. It is not just to eat; it is to prefer certain foods cooked in certain ways and to follow a rigid table etiquette in consuming them.'-- "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man," The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 52-5

In other words, if the Javanese slurp their soup (I have no idea if they do), that is because that is how you are supposed to drink your soup, to a Javanese, not because they are "relaxed." I lived with two Ghanians for a couple of years. They liked to eat with their hands. But this was not because they were not uptight: all one had to do was attempt to pass one of them food with one's left hand and find out just how not relaxed about etiquette someone could be.

8 comments:

  1. I prefer the Genghis Khan method, a la the 'feast and women" scene in 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure'. What can I say, I am old fashioned.

    There is nothing that tells me that there is anything correct or incorrect regarding etiquette except for the culture that you are immersed in. I've traveled to many countries and have seen quite a variety of cultures. What is acceptable to one is unacceptable to the other (such as you left hand example).

    Even within particular cultures you will see variation. How many times have you gone to a friend, neighbor or coworkers home for a nightcap or a prolonged stay and noticed some things that you find strange? It isn't that it is wrong or right, it is just that it is different.

    I never understood those who attempt to say that one's etiquette is right or wrong. Sure, I can understand that within the context of a particular culture, but not in a general sense of correctness or wrongness.

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  2. But, Joseph, just because "X is only wrong within culture Y" does not mean it's not actually wrong! If you invite me over for a formal dinner, it is wrong for me to eat my cream of lobster bisque by scooping it up with my hands, even if I can point to some culture where it would be OK.

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  3. I don't think that you could prove that it is objectively wrong. In many ways we are prisoners to the opinions of others, we do what we think others will find acceptable. Oftentimes, when we become more comfortable with others, we open up and reveal ourselves a bit more. Central to any sort of society or culture is cooperation, and I think that it is this realization that keeps our real selves in check.

    I often say in a joking way that I think most people are insane, it is just that some are better at hiding it than others. We hide it not because we feel it is right or wrong in any real sense, but that we know that others will see it as right or wrong (whether this is true of not).

    To look at it in the opposite direction, take the case of peer pressure and hazing. This is obviously something where most would agree that it is wrong, but we do it anyway because of the acceptability we seek from others.

    Note: I do realize the implications that this has on things like natural law and the like.

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  4. Everyone else at the party would be shocked and disgusted, and I would know in advance that they would be. Doesn't that make it objectively wrong?

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  5. No, I don't think that it does. Let me ask you this, what is wrong about it? I mean sure, we can all agree that it is wrong, but in the grander scheme of things, what exactly is wrong about it other than the perception of others?

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  6. Well, I have failed to give due consideration to the feelings of your other guests.

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  7. What if your guest is a cat or a dog? I know that may sound flippant, but there is a real reason why I am asking.

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  8. Joseph, if you are inviting cats and dogs to be guests at your dinner parties, I am afraid we are talking across an unbridgeable gulf.

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