Action vs intention
April 17, 2005
I consider myself enthusiastically — even militantly — American. But there is one thing about mainstream American culture, especially among younger people, that never ceases to puzzle and distress me. I dunno if there’s even a good word for it in this culture, but I’ve heard it called “face” or “optics” or “social capital” or a “prestige economy”… and it’s something so fundamental to the way I was raised, and something so lacking in the typical young techie male I interact with, that I frequently experience painful social ruptures from the friction between standards.
In Asian cultures, there’s a type of exchange that is so common that you would never need to explain it. It goes something like this: “I like you and want to help you, so I’m going to give you something you ask for — a job recommendation, a setup for a date, emotional support, an introduction to my social circle, etc. You in turn are pledging not to do anything that would make me look like a moron, and preferably you’ll act in such a way that all parties benefit from the interaction.” The way I was raised, this type of brokering is a way of life. To even lay out the rules like this is unutterably gauche — if you ever had to explain it, you wouldn’t get involved with that person because your assessment of their ability to handle social complexity would be too low.
I can’t say I truly understand the countervailing theory of American mainstream culture, but let me take a whack and you can correct me. I think perhaps people in America are supposed to do favors for other people in a 100% giving way without regard to the consequences to themselves, as anything else is considered 100% transactional. Also, the intentions of the person asking for the favor are supposed to matter more than the actual consequences of their actions. This seems retarded to me since I’ve never heard an American person admit to a bad intention… but I definitely know that good intentions and being “a good person” are very important to mainstream Americans.
So what should I do in situations where I feel that the basic understanding between friends — “I do you this favor and you make me not look bad” — is violated? I get the feeling that by American standards I’m supposed to still be friends with the person but somehow detach from doing any more favors for them; but to be honest, I tend to recoil from the person with a kind of visceral horror. I dunno what it means to be friends with someone who in my view is lacking in the capacity for meaningful social action. This view contrasts, I suspect, with a more common American view that I’m favoring the appearance of propriety and an adherence to forms over the reality of a good heart.
Let me give you an example, which I hasten to say has no resemblance to any actual situation I’ve been in lately. Let’s say your friend Bob asks you to set up a date with your other friend Alice — but then he’s late, yaks on the cellie all night, tells embarrassing stories about you, and doesn’t call her the next day although he says he will. When you try to explain to Bob that he messed up, he gets all defensive and thinks you’re mad at him because he didn’t like Alice enough to ask for another date — when in fact you’re mad because you incurred Alice’s displeasure from trying to do the guy a favor. That is, roughly speaking, the type of interaction I’m talking about.
Interestingly, most of my close friends are people who, generally through intimate contact with another culture, have a similar sense of the forms as I do. Also, as I have more business interactions with people far higher up the ladder than me, I find that they conform much more closely to the way I was raised than to the prevailing American youth norm. Especially in Silicon Valley, which is basically a large small town, gracefully handling issues of reputation and obligation is an essential part of doing business. As the rappers say, you better come correct or go home to mama. 🙂