Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Matter of Social Etiquette

In Judaism we have certain laws that apply to all people, at all times, in all circumstances. What the Torah tells us to do is immutable. Thou shalt not commit adultery applied thousands of years ago and still applies today. Then there are dictates established Mi'd'rabonon. Sometimes special circumstances faced Klal that required rules to be put into place in response to those circumstances. Once the circumstances were no longer the case, the rules no longer applied.

Human beings have added another layer of rules, not halachic but societal. Call them the rules of etiquette or social behavior. All organized societies have such rules of societal behavior. Sometimes they derive from established law and sometimes they derive from thin air; they are inventions with no basis in law or only a very tenuous basis in law. But one thing all rules of society have in common is that they are not carved in stone, passed unchanged from generation to generation. The etiquette that ruled the social lives of your grandparents is probably not the etiquette that rules your social lives. There may be bits and pieces of your grandparents' etiquette still seen in today's social rules, but maybe not. Societal rules change according to the circumstances of the people living under them. The only thing that remains constant from generation to generation is that there is going to be some system of societal rules, some system of etiquette.

Let me give you one example. There is a possible change that will be coming about in the way that social correspondence takes place. Right now the etiquette that governs us says that invitations, let's say to a wedding, need to be mailed, snail mailed. That same etiquette says that thank you notes for gifts received need to be handwritten and snail mailed. There are those who are already saying that, given the pervasiveness of the Internet in our lives, social correspondence should be sent via email and the Internet. This is not yet the social norm in the time we are living in, but another 5 years, another 10 years could find that there will be a change to electronic social correspondence. Changing circumstances will dictate a change to social etiquette and societal rules. Yet, there will be a large swathe of time where both rules will be in existence, and where some people will follow the snail mail rule and some will follow the electronic mail rule, and some may follow some amalgam of both rules.

One of the problems that society faces is when social rules are in the process of morphing from one form to another, from one way of looking at things to another. Those living during the change find themselves in a confusing position: are they supposed to follow the old rules or the new rules? This is further compounded when many generations are living at the same time. Older members of society may still be working under rules that applied when they were younger, but which may not apply the same way today, if at all.

Comparing generations is also problematical because each generation may have lived under different circumstances, with different social rules. From a social point of view, it is impossible to compare the pre-WWII generation, living in Europe, with the generations living today in the US. What faced the European Jews in the early to mid-1900s was not what faces Jews today in the US. And those different historical circumstances had and have different social etiquette rules.

Let me give you one example. In the area where my parents were raised in Europe, it was considered appropriate to greet your parents with a kiss on the hand. (Historical note: this kissing of the hands was not just for parents in many parts of society. We see this in the Hungarian language, for one. In English, when you are introduced to someone, one correct social response is to say "I'm pleased to meet you." In Hungarian, the equivalent to "I'm pleased to meet you" translates as "I kiss your hand.") This was considered a social mark of respect. I remember being young and doing this with my parents. But since this was not the social etiquette here in the US it disappeared in my parents' house; my younger siblings were not raised to kiss my parents' hands. Today parents may be greeted with a kiss on the cheek or a hug.

Sometimes we know where etiquette rules come from and other times we have no idea. Decades ago Emily Post published her famous guide to social etiquette. She formalized some of the social rules in existence and added some more. When people were unsure as to what was the correct way to behave socially, they consulted Emily Post. But let's keep in mind that social rules are stratified--many of them begin in the top layers of the social fabric and percolate their way down. And as they move through the social layers, from top to bottom, many of those social rules fall by the wayside.

Yes, even in our egalitarian society, there are social layers. What gets you placed in the top layers used to be money and which family you were born into. Then was added personal/family achievement. And yes, things are not all that different today. I'll bet that every single reader here can name at least one person, and probably more, who would be considered in the "top" layer of our general American society. And I would also bet that every reader here could name someone Jewish whose wealth puts him/her in the "top" layer of Jewish society. (Hint: just think of the names enblazoned on the buildings of our shuls and yeshivas.) And money, lots of money, is probably going to be a consideration for entry into that top layer.

Now to the problem. When an accident of birth determined your social standing, there wasn't much you could do to move from one level of society to another, short of marrying into a higher level or doing something so amazing that the top levels elevated you. When money, and what money can buy, determines much of how the levels are arranged, then those with less money have an impetus to make more money. They reason that as they have more and more money they will also rise socially. They are mostly not wrong. And then there is the group that reasons this way: Person X is not "better" than I am. Person X owns items A, B and C. If I buy items A, B and C then I will be equivalent to Person X. This group reasons that the social rules and practices seen in those in the top levels of society apply or should apply to everyone. (And to be honest, there are those in this "top" level who also see themselves as setting the standards for everyone, at every level.) For this group it is not who you are but what you buy or what you do that makes you the "equal" of society's leaders. Thus we have "Keeping up with the Shwartzes" with a vengeance.

There are large numbers of people in Klal who believe that social occasions, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, must follow the rules in place at the "top" level of society. Frankly, the reasoning in some cases is "Why do People X deserve to have more than I do?" Beats me, but they do. Here's the thing, though. There is no actual etiquette requirement to follow the lead of those with mega bucks when making a simcha; we are not being forced to spend money we don't have--we are doing this to ourselves all by ourselves. Why are we following the lead of those in a social group characterized by having more money than the rest? Let's be honest and say that jealousy plays all too large a part in some of the over spending that takes place in making social affairs--"Why should Person X be the only one to get everything they want?! I want it too!!"

Given today's financial realities, the only social rule that should apply when making a social affair is one that has actually existed for thousands of years: "Can I afford what I want without going into long term debt for it that I'll probably never be able to pay off?" If the answer is "no," then you need to make your simcha in some other way. If the answer is "yes," then do what you want. In either case, there is no social solecism involved when your simcha differs from someone else's simcha. If your problem is with social stratification based on money or achievement, well that is a wholly different problem.


Trudy said...

Sure, sometimes it's wanting what the other person has...a human characteristic. But sometimes it's about wanting to fit in where you live. In the community where we first lived when we got married we didn't know anyone. Through shul we began to meet people. The social rules in that community didn't always make me happy but if we and our kids were going to belong and have people to be friends with we were going to have to play by the rules.

Our first Bar Mitzvah was made in that community. Everyone, and I mean everyone, invited all the rebbaim that a boy had while in yeshiva to the Bar Mitzvah. That added another 8 people who had to be invited, and their wives too. Yes, we caved in and did the inviting, because we didn't want to become a topic of conversation and more, we didn't want our son to get flack from his friends and their parents.

When we moved we picked a community that was a little more laid back. Where people were more individual in what they did for simchas. But I realize that not everybody has that option to move.

Still, I have to agree with you that playing follow the leader when it comes to simchas is ridiculous. No one should have to feel, like we did, that they are going to be social outcasts if they choose to do things their own way. Maybe if we had been more secure we should just have done thiings the way we wanted. Who knows, maybe things would have changed a little in that community. Sometimes it only takes one person to change things, but you have to be willing to put yourself on the firing line when you challenge the status quo. Today I'm secure enough that I could have done it. Back then we weren't.

David Staum said...

I got married in 2003 and we decided to print our thank you notes. We had kept a database of all the gifts we recieved and tis way were able to do a mail merge that listed the gifts each person had sent us, such as "Dear xxxx, Thank you so much for joining us in our simcha, and thanks so much for the gift/gifts of xxxx,xxxx. May we celebrate many more smachot together, blah, blah.."

We printed them on nice card stock, in color, using a script handwriting font, and personalized each one beyond the basic mail merge. Most people thought they were lovely. A couple of people, however, let us know indirectly that they felt they should have gotten a handwritten note. Our handwritten notes would have been less timely and less legible, but some people still feel that's more important. Oh, well.