Stay formal and cordial to know me better

Everyone has to appear cheerful


Nivriti Butalia

Published: Sun 21 May 2017, 8:08 PM

Last updated: Sun 21 May 2017, 10:11 PM

Earlier in the week, as I was packing my suitcase for a short family vacation to Nainital - we were greeted by rain and a hailstorm - I was listening to a podcast. A friend had shared it on Facebook. And it was a beautiful talk. Everybody please google 'In Defence of Ignorance' on a talk that Ira Glass has introduced which has a wonderful story about a Chinese family and how they deal with a crisis. The narrator talks about how a grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and none of her kids or grandkids broke the news to her because they decided she wouldn't be able to take it. The inevitable might be speeded up.
So it was best, they decided, to leave her ignorant. But how does a whole family, cousins, uncles and all, assemble to say bye to an ailing matriarch with apparently only weeks to live, without raising suspicions?
So they fake a wedding. Or rather, they bring forward a wedding due a year later.
Everyone has to appear cheerful. That's the brief. No one can say anything about the cancer. Elders have warned the likely-to-weep ones to keep it together throughout the charade of these happy wedding functions.
In describing these on goings, the Chinese narrator speaks about how everyone not knowing how to behave and what face to wear through this mock celebration. She uses the phrase emotional protocol. We know all about the "emotional protocol" expected of us at funerals (boo hoo), at weddings (look happy, laugh, tear up slightly), but what do we know about the emotional protocol expected of us during weddings that are actually funerals? That's the phrase - emotional protocol - which got stuck in my head.
Like pulling out a corner of a folded sari from a jhola or a plastic bag at a petticoat store to match its shade with the colour gradients in the shop, I was trying to find a parallel to emotional protocol. What does it correspond to in my life? Where does it fit? Does it apply to my other pet peeve - that annoying human trait of too much familiarity too soon? Like when people randomly take the liberty of calling you a crisp truncation of your name with-out your honest go-ahead. I mean, what can you really say even if some well-meaning sod blithely asks, is it okay if I call you 'xyz' instead of your 'good name', your given 'pqrstuvwxyz'. Why is it so difficult to strike a balance - being friendly without being too familiar? We're not all Americans! (You'd be surprised at how often I flinch at "Niv", when it comes from people who I have not given that tacit permission to. I would never dream of calling another person a name I didn't think I had earned the right to use.
 So what ghastly emotional protocol is this? Or is it plain bad manners? A lack of intelligence, maybe? I should look it up. There must be some empirical behavioural study floating around dabbling in just these people nuances. How dare he? How dare she? I never told him he could call me that! Has the collective intelligence of mankind been rolled into a 'khud'?
There is a Japanese term for the need for enough time to pass for a relationship to establish itself, for an equilibrium and a balance to filter into the rapport. I can't recall the term offhand, but I can remember feeling this acutely when a classmate's husband, who I had just met, and began to dislike shortly after, had started, among other jarring things, to go hammer and tongs with the f-word the first time I met him. It made me bereave good behaviour, politeness, basic old world courtesy, and an upbringing that used to instill this stuff in people. It's not easy to re-learn it as adults. Formality, distance, cordiality. These were good things. And good sense demands we adhere to some sort of protocol. And not just in China.

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