Sunday, December 09, 2007


The hospital had its yearly Longevity Celebration today, which I attempted to stay through in support of two friends who have worked at here many years. I couldn’t last longer than ten minutes, as usual. The event grew out of the Longevity Tea, from the days when many people worked at one place for an entire career, this being even more common among state hospital employees. Speeches are made by department heads about members who have passed multiple-of-5-year milestones. Even for those employees who are receiving 35 or 40 year recognitions, the speeches are usually less warm than retirement party speeches. The sentiments expressed are similar, but more restrained.

It impresses me that most people intuitively know this. We are not given specific instruction on these social subtleties, yet we read the situation and know what is required. More interesting still is that some people do not pick up the cues, and make speeches of varying degrees of inappropriateness. In discussing it after, people just know that Dr. Udo went on too long, or made complimentary remarks that were not quite right for the event. In gossip, we may try to capture exactly what was inappropriate, and speculate why.

It’s an amusing type of gossip, but I think we get it wrong far more often than we admit.

Some of the dislocation is style, which has enormous cultural underpinnings: regional, ethnic, generational, occupational. How much slack we are willing to cut others on such matters is often a product of how we feel about the cultural difference. I am sounding very multi-culti here, focusing on feelings and impressions. But these social subtleties are precisely the realm where multiculturalism is a valid prism. Like any other evil, multiculturalism is a good thing gone bad, a value swollen out of proportion and encroaching on the territory of other values.

Slack/no slack. “Well, she’s from the south, and has more of that effusiveness and open affection.” Whether we say that sentence with fondness or with a slight disapproving tone says more about how we feel about Southerners (or our impression of them) than how we feel about the individual. “He has a sort of old-school formality” can be said with approval, disapproval, or a thousand shadings in between.

We pretend we are talking about the individual. That is not completely untrue, as people from any group are not all of a piece – we like some but not others. Yet even here I think we hide the truth from ourselves. We wrestle with old ghosts – we like Roman Catholics alright, but not that sort of Roman Catholic, and thus pretend that it is something about the individual. It’s not that we don’t like formal people, or Germans, or nurses or auto mechanics, oh no, no, no. There are plenty of those that we do like, doncha know. It’s just that they are that wrong sort.

We lie.

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