Thu | Mar 30, 2017

Why so mean? Even with applause!

Published:Sunday | February 1, 2015 | 2:00 AM

Meleisa Witter, GUEST COLUMNIST

I sat there enraptured. He was such an amazing presenter. So poignant. So relevant. So cogent. So erudite.

As soon as his energetic presentation came to an end, I applauded rapturously, though fewer than half of the guests joined in. After all, the seminar was free. It was the least I could do after being invited to attend a wonderfully organised seminar with excellent presentations in an opulent venue in the grand ballroom of one of Kingston's classy hotels.

Several hours later, elsewhere, a band was playing and the singers were all male, young, eclectic, boasting outstanding vocal ability, oozing creativity, and the lyrics were sharp. But at the end of their performance, what should have been electrifying, spontaneous applause was just a smattering of claps from a few close friends, relatives and diehard fans evidently.

"What the hell is happening here?" I wondered to myself for the umpteenth time in just one day as I again recognised this growing pattern.

I don't know if there is a terminology for it, but there is this reticence in showing appreciation, this lack of social grace and goodwill to the point where people have become tight-fisted even with applause!

no appreciation

No matter how good a performance or presentation, some people seem hard-pressed to put their hands together a few times to indicate "Well done", "That was good", "I really liked it", or simply, "That may not have been too great, but I appreciate the fact that you did this." Yes, people, that is all you are saying when you clap your hands. In fact, as defined by an online dictionary, "Applause is the approval or praise expressed by clapping."

So why the castigation over the lack of this seemingly innocuous social grace? one may ask. I'll quickly answer. This worrying trend is a surface reflection of more deep-seated ills that have been besetting our nation and people in general.

There has been a decided decline in all the things that have been deemed to be social graces. Now, I will allow that perhaps applause is making much ado about nothing, as we know applause falls under the social contagion category, and so most likely once even one person gets the applause going, others will join in.

But, we seem to have lost the understanding that encouragement sweetens labour and so it is a polite thing to do at the appropriate time. But why should that be conflated with social graces?

Wikipedia defines social graces as "skills used to interact politely in social situations. They include manners, etiquette (the specific accepted rules within a culture for the application of universal manners), deportment and fashion." It continued: "These skills were once taught to young women at a finishing school or charm school."

So, polite greetings of 'good morning,' 'thank you' and 'you are welcome', along with 'may I' and 'please', are becoming extinct. Applause may not be universally accepted as an indication of approval, but one thing I know, in Jamaica, we collect our applause like stripes and they reside within the deep recesses of our being, lifting us high on dismal days.

Even more important, we need to understand the function of social graces in making our society work. To underscore the point, just imagine for a moment corporate offices, schools, Parliament, government organisations, and the Church without social graces. Need I expound?

One of the things that has had an impact on the applicability of social graces in the society is 'female equality'. There has been much debate about whether men have ulterior motives when they do what were once socially acceptable things such as opening the door for a woman. But, there has been a heated debate in some places about this, and the emerging idea is that there is no special need for gender-based biases or special treatment for females since the sexes are equal.

When I broached the topic to my exec chairman, Dr Herb Lowe, he was a little surprised that I had noticed the trend and expressed his concern as well. He went on to explain how, when overseas (either Florida or New York) where he is based, it definitely is not vogue for him to open the door for a woman who is even close behind.

He told me a story of one woman who actually said to him, "I can open the door myself." He also disparaged the emerging trend whereby innocent compliments such as "That is a nice jacket" or "Your new Afro quite suits your face" become sexual come-ons. Is this any way to live really?

Another reason for the breakdown in social graces is the notional view that we are self-sufficient. As the old-time parlance goes, 'Humble calf suck the most milk.' But in this age, there seems to be no need for humility.

Humility, though often confused with low self-esteem, is one of the best qualities one can possess. The ability to get on with supervisors, peers and clients is rooted in humility and most people who possess this quality tend to be well-mannered as well. They will invariably offer a 'good morning' or 'please' and say 'thank you'. Of course, the publication Good Guys Finish Last would beg to differ, but numerous studies have shown that it pays good dividends to be polite and do the right thing.

technological rudeness

Technology also encourages social deficiencies. There is much less face-to-face contact, and people spend more time on messenger and text messaging-type communications, which generally disregard politeness and etiquette because everyone understands that those constructs do not apply when texting. This tends to carry over in real life very often. And just think about it: How many times in your co-workers' lifetime do you need to tell her good morning or have a nice day. Really? Well, every day!

The reality is that the fabric of society is being unravelled more and more. I am not sure if social graces fall on the school curriculum, but they should. Values and attitudes must also be taught, and it is not too late to invite some of the parents to workshops offering refresher courses on some of these things.

Jamaica needs to get back to the point where a well-delivered performance elicits unreserved applause and a country girl does not feel weird if she says 'good morning' to some random, unknown person while walking on the streets of Kingston.

Meleisa Witter is a publisher and creative and editorial director of a magazine. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com andmelcwitter@gmail.com.