Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On Politeness

Politeness is not merely "Thank you", "Excuse me" and "Please".  These too.  Such phrases convey the sentiment: "I realize that I might have put you to some inconvenience."

That is however just elementary politeness, which we can teach little children.

What is adult politeness?

Simply put, adult politeness is to behave in a way that does not discomfort other people or make them feel awkward.  It is to care enough about others' feelings that one is willing to put some thought into how one interacts with them.

A few examples will illustrate, ones which most normal people already understand and follow:

Let us say one is at a dinner party and the main dish (prepared by the hostess) is too salty.  The hostess is asking you for seconds.  The impolite response would be to tell the truth.  The polite response would be to invent an excuse that does not make the hostess feel bad.

As another example, a friend calls you for his birthday party.  You just want to idle away your evening but don't want to hurt his feelings.  The impolite response would be to tell the truth that you don't feel like coming over.  The polite response would again be to invent an excuse for busyness.

In earlier times, polite behavior used to be called "manners".  Family and school were places where one learnt this.  "Polite society" was exactly that section of the population in which one could expect good manners.

It is not hard to see that, now-a-days, being "true to oneself" is becoming a higher value than being sensitive to others' feelings.  To express oneself is considered more desirable than to be restrained.

Is that a good thing?  Does it lead to more sanity and harmony, or otherwise?  Do we like polite people or do we enjoy the company of rude ones?  There are certainly circumstances in which telling the truth without sugar-coating is important, but most situations are immensely helped by a desire to not hurt.

To balance one's own needs with an emotional sensitivity for the other is the hallmark of a polite person.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Notes on Looking Good, part 2

Part 1.

Before we proceed to the other aspects of beauty (grace, expressions, adornments), let us take a detour into the psychological effects of looking good.

What happens in one's mind if one knows that one is looking good?  Is the statement "I look good for myself, not for other people," a fair statement?  What is the psychological significance of beauty?

Humans are creatures with the capacity to imagine others' states of mind.  When we read and enjoy a novel, or watch a movie, or even when we talk to others, our reactions form because we are continuously evaluating how the other person (or the character) must be feeling.  Without this capacity for surmising others' states of mind, we will be severely crippled.  A person who cannot easily determine how his or her behavior makes other people feel will end up either in jail or in a mental institution.

Our appearance is a passive act.  It is a communication to others without an overt activity.  Fashion theorists never get tired of saying that fashion is a "statement of who you are".  That to dress in a certain way is to "express oneself".  That how one dresses determines how one will be treated.

It is all true.  We do get influenced by others' looks, and the others know that we get influenced and that is why they try to look good.

Looking good is a form of power.  In settings where appearance matters (and it does so in almost all social settings), a more attractive person finds it easier to have his/her way.  It is for this reason that after an age, people form cliques and groups of similarly attractive companions.  People in one group should possess similar levels of look-good-power otherwise there is the possibility of a tense hierarchy.  A group of clubbing women who are all fat but who have one member who is thin and in shape will soon find it expedient to expel the thin member.  Similarly a group of men who don't know how to dress well will not find a dapper dandy dying to gain friendship with them.

It is true that it "feels good" when one is "looking good".  But why?  Because one sees a beautiful person in the mirror and that thing of beauty is a joy?  Is that joy of a similar kind when one sees a beautiful person on the street?  Of course not.  The joy of appreciation, or the pang of jealousy, is very different than the good feeling one gets when one looks in the mirror and finds oneself looking at a beautiful person.

So, in case it needs to be said, it is not just the vision of beauty that is the provider of joy, but the fact that the vision of beauty is "me"!

In what manner is "me" being beautiful joyous?

Assume one is a Muslim woman living in Abu Dhabi and one is to leave one's home always dressed in a burqa, fully covered from head to toe.  Will one get as much joy to wear a great dress and put on lipstick and then cover it all before leaving home, than to wear a dress and have it appreciated by others?  No.  The joy will be much more if one's beauty is not just for oneself.  There might still be the joy in the realization that one is very beautiful and that when the occasion arrives (in days or years), one will surely wow everybody.  The joy of a an anticipated appreciation is not a small one.

The joy of being beautiful is therefore, to an extent at least, a joy about being appreciated.

To be fair, one might still admire one's own body, because beauty and fitness, inasmuch as they go together, are also indicators of health and longevity.  So at some level, there might be satisfaction about one's health.  Fit people are fond of looking at themselves in the mirror.  Gyms have full-length mirrors, and not just for watching one's form while one is squatting.

The joy of being beautiful is therefore also a joy of seeing oneself being healthy.

It might be said that fit people who continue to spend efforts at their fitness don't care about others' appreciation (since they already have that), but that they are doing it for themselves.  But that is not true.  Not only are their efforts intended to maintain their fitness, it sometimes does become a self-serving agenda to be extremely fit as an end-in-itself.  A person who wants to lower his BMI to 8 from 12 can be considered in this category, and so can someone who can already squat 300lb and wants to squat 310lb.  There is nothing wrong in having fitness as a hobby, but clearly beyond a point it is no longer about looking good (to oneself or to another) but is merely a hobby which gives one pleasure and pride.

To look good is to feel good because at a subconscious level, one is happy and confident about the favorable impression one will make on other people.  This confidence is energy-boosting and leads to a "seize the day" kind of attitude.  A married woman may not be looking for a husband or a boyfriend when she is all dolled-up and goes to a party, but she knows she is getting the admiration and desirous glances, and that sense of power and choice (and the jealousy or, less probably, the appreciation it might provoke in other women) makes her feel more alive and fulfilled.

The joy of being beautiful is primarily the joy of feeling powerful.

There may be other means of asserting one's dominance, say, one's knowledge about why General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics cannot both be correct.  But such assertive possibilities, even though they go deeper and are appreciated for far longer, are generally for restricted demographics.  Much more versatile is to just look hot.

(to be continued)

Notes on Looking Good, part 1

Broadly speaking, looking good depends on what kind of body one has, what kind of health and grace one possesses, and the way one adorns the body.

Let us, at the outset, dispense with the notion that beauty is completely subjective.  It is a popular, but a rather misunderstood notion that "Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder."  This sentence is generally pronounced upon the vision of a somewhat unattractive person paired with a beauteous one, and when wonder asks "What did he see in her?"

There are certainly variances in people's judgment of others' beauty, but the variance is statistically bounded.  Assuming the scale of beauty to be from 1 to 10, it is unlikely that a person rated 4 (on average) by one hundred random people is rated beyond 9 (on average) by another random hundred people.  In the same vein, a last-round-entrant-model may not be considered the deserving prize-winner of a beauty pageant, but it would be extremely unlikely to find a person who regards that model as "ugly".

Beauty is not an exact science, but neither is it "whatever goes".  There have been many studies on the kind of proportions in a face (and the waste-hip ratio etc.) that lead to visual appeal, and these studies all indisputably point to the conclusion that beauty is not all that subjective.

Of course, someone having an emotional investment in the other person (a mother in a child being the most obvious example) will not be easily repulsed by its appearance.  And to be fair, the vast majority of human beings lie in the category of "neither too ugly, nor too pretty", so the perception of members of this vast majority as beautiful or ugly depends on factors other than how their naked bodies look.  They may have a pleasing (or "sweet") demeanor, they may know how to dress well, they may know how to make up their faces, they may smell good, they may have a great smile, and so on.

It might be true that different races have somewhat different standards of beauty, but that still does not mean that beauty is totally subjective.  It just means that standards of beauty have evolved differently in different populations.  There is obviously no beauty in raw nature.  A cloud is a cloud after all.  Beauty is a human response, but this response is based on more than just one's individual predilections.  It builds upon certain innate preferences as well as cultural influences.  On top of them, individual preferences may hold some small sway.


Let us, at first, consider the unadorned body.

The body is born with certain genes and that may lead to an in-born attractiveness which probably lasts for a large part of one's life.  Added to that is the care and nutrition the body receives, and how fit it remains as it grows older.

Care, nutrition and fitness are more easily achieved if one is affluent.  Moreover, affluent people stand a better chance at giving birth to beautiful babies.  Affluence leads to better medical care of the mother and the unborn child, less stress, better rest and nutrition for the mother, etc.  More pertinently however, affluent people can attract more beautiful partners which positively affects the future beauty of their children.

Fitness, in the age of lack of physical labor, depends a lot on whether one can choose what to eat, and whether one can choose or afford to indulge in certain physical sports and conditioning activities.  Poor people have little choice in both, and it is rather evident in the developed world.  As poor people in a country like USA grow in years, the circumstances of their lives lead them to become increasingly unhealthy, obese and haggard.  Baldness, for example, has been correlated to stress.  (While a rich stockbroker can go bald from stress, he can also easily afford artificial hair).

On that note, bodily interventions (fake breasts, fake eyelashes, cosmetic surgery, steroid supplements, personal training, dental veneers, waxed bodies, anti-wrinkle treatments) are not cheap.  The more affluent one is, the easier it is to afford these and get rid of any physical shortcoming or an effect of aging.

In the developed world (where religion as a moral force has lost its sway), people find it easier to admit to the importance of physical beauty.  It is not considered shallow or materialistic.  In the US (as is now becoming more mainstream in a country like India) boob job or a tooth-whitening-treatment is seen as an investment which will probably give a return many times over.

As an aside, religion, to quite an extent, offers solace to those who cannot afford materialism.  The meek have never inherited the earth, and never will, but they can at least feel happy that though they might be unattractive and unhealthy, they are not "sinful" like their greedy brethren.  The greedy brethren, on the other hand, are happy with their own brand of guilt-free spirituality, their chiseled bodies and their glowing skins.

(to be continued)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Indian English

India was a British colony for many centuries.  The British spoke English, and India inherited British English.  From being the sign of an elite education and a higher pedigree, it has now become the de-facto language of higher education in India.

In the past, learning English was a tall order for the vast majority of Indians.  Knowing a second language (especially in the written form) requires education and training.  For a long time, and some would argue even now, the Indian education system has been hopelessly inadequate in teaching even the local language and basic arithmetic, never mind a second language.  Many leftist educationists advocate development of the local language, arguing that it is well-nigh impossible to teach people science and arithmetic in an alien language.  They point to the fact that many developing countries (the prime examples being Japan and China) have been successful at human development only by encouraging education in the native language.

Moreover, many regions in India look at the teaching of their local language as a matter of pride and the teaching of any other language as an attack on the local culture.  Also, India has dozens of languages and hundreds, if not thousands, of dialects.  Making available good quality teaching materials in local languages is not easy.  It is also not hard to see the lack of geographic mobility of a person who knows only the local language.  Many great educational institutes in India are managed by the central government, and they teach in English.  A person educated in his/her native language is usually incapable of succeeding at these institutes.


But what about Indians who do manage to learn English and speak it?  Many books have been written about the way Indians use the English language.  This is an enjoyable read, albeit one which is mostly critical of Indian English.

I think there are at least three distinct ways in which Indian English can be distinguished: the way we use phrases and idioms, our pronunciation, and our accent.

We use unique phrases and idioms ("pass out of college", "reverting back with more information", "prepone").  Not all of these are wrong.  Some are just archaic or unique.

Our pronunciation is either heavily British ("faast instead of faest", "shedule instead of skedule"), or sometimes just incorrect.  That is because we do not know how to pronounce some uncommon words, and English being a second language, we use common sense which in many cases does not apply to this complex language.

For example, most Indians that I know of pronounce the word "photography" by extending from how they pronounce the word "photograph".  Similarly, I always thought the word "hyperbole" was pronounced as "hyper-bolay" (and not "hy-perbolee" as specified by the dictionary).  I never heard anyone speak hyperbole correctly in India, otherwise I would have at least checked.  Similarly the words: gravel (pronounced correctly as gra (as in grand) vel (as in mull)), vinyl (pronounced correctly as vynal and not veenile), awry (a-wry and not aw-ry) are pronounced differently than what would naturally occur to an Indian.

And as is well-known, we have difficulty knowing the difference between pronouncing the v as in "verbose" and the w as in "woman".

Coming to our accent, it is identifiable enough to be parodied by stand-up-comedians and in humorous TV shows.

English being a world language does not have a single authoritative variant.  The words, accents, and sometimes even the pronunciation of common words differ across English-speaking regions.  Americans say "God" as gawd or even sometimes as "guy-ed", "you got it" as "you gaat it".  Australians pronounce "basin" as "bison" ("wash-bison").  And so on.

However, the people in English-speaking regions speak English as their first language and even though they may have a unique way of speaking it, they regard it as a valid way.  People who speak English as their second language continuously second-guess and have to keep learning how to speak it naturally and effortlessly.

Language has a bearing on trust, respect and relationships.  In business and public-relations, if you speak the local language in an alien manner, you have a more difficult task of winning over your listener.  There is an implicit distrust of anything strange-sounding.  And sometimes a foreign accent is just hard to understand.  An Indian or Chinese who wishes to be a leader in an English speaking country cannot afford to speak in their native accent.  If the role involves talking to people at all levels and when the role involves building trust and consensus, this is just bad strategy.

Also, I cannot help but mention that countries who speak English as their first language are ruled by White people.  Therefore, an Australian accent is going to be more acceptable (at a race kinship level) than a Chinese or an Indian accent.

People associate races and regions and accents with stereotypes.  To a foreign listener, an Indian accent quickly triggers notions of poverty, lack of hygiene, visa-fraud, corruption, IT grunt-work, call centers, mysticism, curries, ill-fitting clothes, introvert nerd geniuses, etc.  An Indian who wishes to overcome this stereotype has little choice but to not sound like an FOB ("fresh-off-the-boat").

There is nothing strange about wanting to "fit in".  Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born faux-PM of India, tries to speak Hindi as an Indian in order to sway people.  If she spoke Hindi as the venerable Tom Alter, I am not sure she would win any fans.

But I do think it is possible for Indian English to gain a wider recognition.  As Indians are achieving more and more success in the global arena, and as we are making strides in our education and human development, the way we speak English must, and will, slowly find greater recognition.  The stereotype of the poor Indian will probably take many centuries to go away, because that has complex causes.  And coupled with a greater recognition of Indian English, Indians must also try harder at learning to speak English not in an archaic or in an obviously wrong way.

This middle ground, where we recognize our failings in pronunciation and phraseology, and where there is more global acceptance of the Indian accent and intonation, would certainly be a happy place to be.