Monday, August 07, 2006

The Mutes May Be Onto Something.

When do kids learn about sarcasm?
Middle children no doubt pick up on the subtleties of twisting words for ironic effect faster than others in order to justify the way their families treat them. "We love you all the same, buuut, if we had to choose, we love Jessica the least."
My parents are hilarious. And also, mildly abusive.
I don't remember the exact moment of learning about sarcasm, like I do the exact moment of learning to read. Hours on end, going over the pages of Are You My Mother with my mom until the words resonated. And after reading the entire story aloud, I looked to my Italian/Filipino mother and thought, no seriously--are you?
But I think I became aware of sarcasm around the time my parents dropped the "if you don't have anything nice to say..." bomb. My mother used to wait with us at the end of our driveway for the school bus and when we would get on she would yell out, "Be kind!" That always annoyed me because it was obvious no one else on the bus had gotten that memo. So the coupling of the "don't say anything at all" advice with the direction to be kind, left me and my sisters silently smiling as kids told us we ate poop.
And I guess around this time it occurred to me to ask, could you say something maybe not so nice, if you did it in a joking matter? New York and my family said yes. And so it was.
Later in life I read that people are only half kidding when they are kidding and that 50% of it is true. This made me nervous because I had previously worked out that 87% of the time, I'm not serious, and therefore when I thought I was kidding, people probably thought I was telling the truth. So on top of the 13% of the time I was being genuinely serious, people thought that half of that 87% was real, which I guarantee it was not. So 43.5% of the kidding time I was not being kind, or funny, and people thought I was a complete ass. Or was it actually a higher percentage? Carry the two...and then my head burst into flames so I put the pencil down.
But it's all so much to think about. Truth, irony, sincerity, wit, all coming together to form this confusing mess in which we hope to relate to each other. I'm all for sarcasm but I also have the socially crippling tendency to over-analyze dialogue. So while I totally appreciate tongue-in-cheek conversation, I often walk away thinking, wait, was that for real?
Gah, does she have a point?!
Oh, right.
So I was reading an article about the Iranian social principle of taarof, which is a practice of insincerity. It's a concept of telling people what they want to hear even if you don't mean it, inviting people to dinner when you really don't want them there, and dishing out false praise, but it's all considered polite. The article says, "The way Iranians themselves describe it, is to say that being direct and telling the truth are not prized principles in Iran."
OK, so this sort of blew my mind. Bringing this up is not to play ugly American dissing Middle East, it's a social reality there, and Iranians accept it freely, according to the article. Much the way I think Americans accept sarcasm as a social reality here. But the thing is, we know when we're kidding and work to let the people we're talking with know we're kidding too (if only to avoid the math). In Iran, taarof is used to keep people constantly guessing if you're sincere. The article says, "In the West "yes" generally means yes. In Iran, "yes" can mean yes, but it often means maybe or no...In Iran you praise people and you don't mean it. You promise things and you don't mean it. People who live here understand that."
Understand what?!!
If Iranians understand that what people are telling them is insincere why would they even bother conversing? I guess, because there's that chance that it might be true? I don't know, it's so confusing to me. I wouldn't last 3 seconds in Iran. Despite the exaggerated eye rolls after everything I said peering out from beneath my burkha, I would be socially paralyzed talking to people--"OK, holmes, for reals-- what do you mean?!"
Remind me never to go shopping for jeans in Iran. Yea, really? They look good? Aw, thanks! And can i ask you? out of me, brina and ness? who do you love the most?

Boy, I'm tired.


Anonymous said...

Sarcasm, like perpetually runny noses and consumer longing, is something children develop alarmingly early. This is possibly because from an early age, they are looking for ways to be beastly to one another and the discovery that a barbed comment can have more of an impact than a ruler across the back of the knuckles is a genuine eureka moment.

Children, I have observed, appear to move directly from the ‘you smell’, ‘no - YOU smell’ bickering between siblings that, in the age before DVD players in the car was a good a way as any of whiling away a 7 hour journey, to entry-level sarcasm directed at parents instead. In the car they can get away with it because it’s quite hard to turn round and thump the brat in the back seat when maintaining a steady 90mph. At the dinner table it’s easier to punish such action and I know a few kids who will probably not know what pudding tastes like until they are in a position to buy it for themselves.

One lesson that the kids who developed Wildian wit the way that countries with mad leaders develop their nuclear programmes learn quick and early though, is that no matter how rapier like your wit, it will do you little good against the blunt instruments that are the kid currently pounding the snot out of you. It’s all very well being ironic, but if you’ve just been inserted into a dustbin, not many people are going to hear you.

As for honesty - does it exist on any level? Diplomats and politicians lie for a living, sometimes with honourable intention. The rest of us are just talented amateurs. People who tell the truth all the time are regarded as autistic. What we say and what we think are two different things entirely.

Friend: ‘What do you think of my tattoo?’
You: ‘Wow, it’s really lovely, very you. A lot of people have a butterfly or something, but that seahorse on your shoulder is different and individual. It suits you.’
THINKS: ‘You look like a whore.’
Friend: ‘It IS a butterfly’
You: ‘Oh!’
THINKS: ‘Fuck!’

And that’s just when we’re trying to be nice to friends. With loved ones, it’s even worse.

You: ‘Wow, you look great.’
LO: ‘Are you saying I’m fat?’
You: ‘What?’
THINKS: ‘What?’

Basically, we’re screwed because we’re conditioned as civilised creatures to live within the confines of a social order, not to give offence and be considerate of others. Add to this social stew the seasoning of paranoia that comes from living in a city and we haven’t got a hope.

Person in club you have been sort of nearly making eye contact with for the last hour: ‘Hi, would you like to dance?’
You think: ‘What? Are they doing this because they like me, or for some sort of twisted bet, or to get back at a partner, or maybe they’re drunk, or maybe I look hot tonight, I mean, this is a new shirt, okay…what did they want again?’

Which is why alcohol is the greatest invention ever. Sod sodium pentathol, down two bottles of a decent shiraz and you’re away!

Stranger: ‘Would you like to dance?’
You: ‘Hell yes!’

Yup, alcohol, the grease of any social occasion.

Jess said...

Right. So I'm in love with you.
Hands down the most brilliant things I've heard in, um, forever.
-the pudding comment? HILARIOUS.
-Dustbin comment? Wildly amusing.
-And the examples of conversations?! Well, I've had those exact conversations and thought bubbles so it really put the feather to my ribs to read them.
The philosophical question of truth and honesty is spot on and I meant to bring that up. The idea that leaders here already seem to use taarof, and the entire nation of Iran is set on using it forever, leaves us little room for effective conversation about the Middle East situation when all it will be is both sides offering promises they have no intention to keep.
It's just overwhelmingly frustrating more than anything.

I'm with you on the social graces taarof of not insulting people but I'd hope that peace meetings and efforts to curb nuclear programs would employ some autistic-honesty. Perhaps beyond the "no YOU smell"-- but with Bush, there's no guarantee.
I'd like for a discussion of effective solutions to take place once in this administration that doesn't involve the metaphorical seahorse compliments. But maybe that's too much to ask.

But well done on the booze observation, I'm so right there with you. I've thought before that all UN meetings should take place on trampolines because people are more apt to shout out suppressed thoughts when attempting to scissor-kick 6ft in the air. Throw in a few pints and I think we're really talking about a venue for effective change.

Really though, who is this? Because I want to give you the other half of my best friend necklace.

juliet said...

i want to know who anonymous is as well. but i'm liking it all the same.

i'll call you from the train and we'll figure out where to meet.

Anonymous said...

Really though, who is this?

Just a bloke sat in an office in London who hit ‘next blog’ and, totally at random, saw yours.

Sadly, there’s not much more to say than that. Believe me, the intention is not to tease - there’s nothing worse than a blogger comment tease (well, apart from getting your arm caught in a threshing machine, genocide or maybe impersonating a god). It starts of maddening, drops into background annoying and then just becomes creepy.

Thought to myself ‘funny blog’ and so now occasionally check to see what’s been posted.

Jesus…reading that last bit back does sound creepy…like a really lazy stalker. But that’s what blogs are for, aren’t they? Certainly, yours is funnier and more interesting than some of the ‘blogs of note’ that Blogger sees fit to identify.

Jess said...

HA! OK, good to know.
You seem to have a very healthy sense of the order of bad things.

Well, thanks for being my lazy stalker. (If you knew me, you'd realize how hilarious it is that my stalker would also be lazy.)
But I'm afraid you're way funnier than me so maybe not check back so often, you'll start to get bored.
Trust me, that's how my active stalker finally stopped keeping tabs.
"On the sofa again?!! I'm outta here."