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Construction of Reality: Interaction Ritual

Three Chapters from the preview remain after this one:

9.The Ritual Masters (How rituals create different types and classes of people)

10. The Ideologues (How identity is tied into story, ideology and meaning)

11. Reign of the Ideologues (How ideology is used to create civilizations and the payoffs for ideologues)

We have, so far, talked mostly about more obvious rituals like worship or signing the national anthem or saluting the flag.

But there is another class of ritual, interaction ritual(x). Interaction rituals are the small, repetitive ways you live your life. Think of meeting a friend: you greet each other, you ask how each of you are doing, you commiserate if the news is bad or you congratulate them if it is good, and when you leave you say goodbye. Depending on your culture you may hug them or kiss them on the cheek when meeting and leaving.

As suggested before, try this experiment, next time you meet a friend: don’t say goodbye. If your culture requires a gesture of physical affection, avoid it.

Feels awkward, doesn’t it? Feels wrong.

This specific ritual affirms that each of you is important to the other: worthy of consideration and affection.

We go thru this same form with strangers we interact with, but without most of the obligations. Next time the store clerk asks you how your day was, don’t answer.

A slight feeling of awkwardness, but nothing like doing that to a friend. And, in fact, the rules are different, when they ask you, aren’t expected to actually tell them, “well my Dad died today and I feel awful”, though if you do, most people will react with appropriate commiseration.

Interaction ritual is a subset of repetitive behaviour, but it is important because it happens with other people, and breaking the expectations of an interaction ritual feels awkward or embarrassing.

We’ll discuss interaction ritual in school in a later chapter, but remember how you act towards teachers and how they act to you? Different, eh? See how service workers act around the people they serve. Servants are the most extreme case: a servant always acts as if those he or she serve owns the space around them. They are unobtrusive, apologetic: the world belongs to the masters, not to them.(X)

Think about asking your boss for a raise or having to speak to a crowd. Imagine turning to the stranger in the elevator and saying something to them, even something nice “I love what you’ve done with your hair!”

Oops. You’ve just violated an interaction ritual: that put into close quarters with strangers, we will ignore them, not intrude further on their space.

Or just move closer to someone than feels comfortable. Or stand slightly further from someone than your relationship suggests. If you stand too close they’ll usually step away. Wait 30 seconds, take a slight step forwards. You can actually walk people dozens of feet across a room this way, but beware, they are likely to get angry, hurt, or scared. Possibly all three.

Interaction ritual is how social reality is reified every single day. It sets our relationships with other people, and it keeps them relatively stable, changing mostly as our roles, and thus, how we are supposed to act in such rituals, change.

Your co-worker becomes boss, and suddenly she has a desk which faces her door, rather than away from the door of her cubicle. The desk is, by default, thus, between you and her every time you approach her in her office. She asks you to sit or she doesn’t: that is her choice. People come to her for permission and she gives it or denies it. The very process of people asking her for permission means different interactions, and over time they will change her feeling of who she is. They will also change her former co-workers feelings towards her. If they don’t, she will likely fail as a boss.

Interaction ritual is endless and varied and entire books have been written about it.(x) The simplest way to see if social behaviour is interaction ritual is to change it: act differently and see if it feels bad or makes other people upset. Walk into the CEOs office without asking permission from her secretary. Sit down without being invited. Say, “hey Mary, how ya doing today.”

Well, do all this only if you’re about to quit or just have, so you don’t get fired.

But more subtle variations are all around us. In common speech, we call this violating etiquette. In a culture with strong queuing rules cut in near the front of the line, say.

Frost. Or worse.

Violating some ritual requirements is dangerous: cutting the line can, at the most extreme end, get you punched. Refusing to bump fists with the rowdy young man can make him and his friends decide you’re stuck up, and that can lead to violence. Even when it doesn’t, as with having a friendly chat with your CEO without permission, calling her by her first name and lighting up a cigarette without her permission, violating interaction rituals can mess your life up.

Failure at interaction ritual tells people you are not of the tribe, not to be trusted. You don’t act right.

So interaction ritual makes you into a certain sort of person both because successful interactions are rewarded, and because you will be punished for not going along. And if you insist on not going along too much, it will usually cut you off from power and money and influence.

That’s how successful ritual regimes work: they reward those who comply, and sanction those who don’t.

Bearing that in mind, let us talk about those who benefit most from rituals, their masters.



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1 Comment

  1. Feral Finster

    Paging Confucius, Confucius please pick up the white courtesy phone, paging Confucius…

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