From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (1)—Tip Jars

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Displays of Authenticity.
[a] Tipped     RF
So I was standing in line at a coffee shop the other day, when I started working through my strategy. "Make sure you put your dollar in the tip jar as s/he hands you back your card," I thought that I thought to myself. I didn't really have to think it through, though. It's something I find myself doing as a matter of course. I know that I am not alone, even though agreement on the public necessities of this transaction is not unanimous. I know that I have often struggled to understand the "performative" aspects of this little ritual. It is one of those awkward transactions that pepper the day, and are almost too minor to think about. Almost. You may recall that one of the points of Round and Square is to examine those little corners of life that collect dust bunnies in our minds, even as we contemplate the fate of nations and the future of the species. The little stuff matters, and all the more so if the situation is awkward. We can learn a great deal about social and cultural life from awkward moments, and I will have much more to say about this in future posts.

We need to get back to the coffee shop, though. Let's make our way to the front of the line (no budging). Will they know that you have "tipped" if you just slip in your dollar(s) while they are preparing your coffee? Does it matter? And who are "they," anyway (the baristas or the patrons...or both)? Have you ever tossed in a few coins, just to make sure that they made noise? Does this embarrass you when it is pointed out? Would you prefer to think of this as something that "just happens" in the course of your day?

The crinkle of dollars and the clank of coins are all "displays of authenticity." I have used that phrase to define (loosely) that small array of human behaviors intended to show that what we just did is "real" or "authentic" or...some other word that is an imperfect match of language to action. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the word "authenticity" is hardly absolute. Try to find a better one, though (I'm listening). In the end, language is never a match for the richness of cultural nuances, so let's just think about the behavioral matters a little further and leave the "wording" question for a time.
[b] Display    RF

You want to leave a tip. You want to be seen as the kind of person who leaves a tip. You would leave a tip if no one was looking. You wouldn't leave a tip if no one was looking. You wouldn't leave a tip even if someone was looking. You would leave a tip if some people were looking, but not others. You would look down on someone else who quite obviously "makes sure" that the tipping is seen.

These matters are difficult, people, and they have a great deal to do with the way we "present" ourselves in everyday life.

And let us not forget (says Emile Durkheim) that there is more than an individual thought process at work. At the very least, a set of social expectations is channeled through a wide array of behavioral possibilities. There is also a distinctive ritual element to the giving of tips (in all forms), often with the expectation of a gesture of gratitude (often, but not always, verbal) after the tip is given. This is complicated stuff. Life is.

Let's take a quick read through what Erving Goffman has to say about a similar matter, and call it an authentic day. In the passage below, he discusses the manner in which life is enacted and portrayed. For Goffman, social life is is fundamentally performative. Whether we are behind the coffee counter or in front of it (and even that is perspectival, of course) we are acting

Acting and authenticity are more closely related than we might have supposed, and we will return to that point often in the coming weeks. The long embedded quotation from Sartre may seem to drift very far from our topic of "tip jars," but if you have been reading this blog regularly, you already know that is the whole point. It begins with "tip jars," leads to larger questions of "authentic display," and veers off into lands of philosophical argumentation we might never have otherwise considered.

Erving Goffman (and Jean-Paul Sartre)
[c] Presentation   RL
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is none the less something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized. [Jean-Paul] Sartre, here, provides a good illustration:

Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express and interest a little too solicitous for the order or the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? 

We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the café plays with his condition in order to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. 

Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, or the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is not longer meant to see, since it is a rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight “fixed at ten paces”). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition. [1]

[1] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 75-76. (Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 59).

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

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