About a week ago, I had a bizarre experience. I was meeting a dear friend, whom I had not seen for almost a year owing to the pandemic. In my mind, I was joyously glad about the meeting and seeing my friend after what seemed like ages. I had been through emotionally tough times during the year, and was hoping to have a heart-to-heart. In fact, all I wanted to do was warmly ask how she had been. I was sure that the simple sentence would convey to her tender love and care, mingled with thankfulness for the fact that we had both survived the pandemic, and that we were able to reunite after chaotic, desperate times.
The reality of our meeting, as it often turns out, was different and disappointing. The first thing my friend commented on when she saw me was about how bald I had become! One of those Facebook memes popped into my head at that moment – ‘Expectation versus reality’!
With a defeated demeanour, I responded and said that I have bad hair and know it. My friend, however, did not stop at this point. She began introspecting the quality of the hair on my head, going at it like a nasty critic at The New Yorker tearing a work of art apart.
This amazing (almost) theatrical act of verbal dexterity, much to my dismay, was all unfolding in a public space.
However, I want to cut this comedy short. Had this been an isolated incident or one of those random episodes with a nosy relative, I would not have bothered to spare as many words. Only, it was not. In fact, there is an incredulous trend these days of dusting social courtesies off with amazing cavalierness.
My poor friend, therefore, is perhaps not to be blamed for being uncouth.
We are all quick to comment on someone else’s looks, attire and attitude without resorting to the tried and tested script/s of social courtesies that have been handed down to us in a buttery-smooth fashion. This was not a one-off incident. Rather, it indicates a social malaise.
Do any of us recall what we were taught as children by our parents and grandparents when we met a relative, who had come to visit us at home after a really long time? I remember being taught to ask, simply and warmly, “How are you?”
To my imagination, lest I be blamed for being blinded by nostalgia, I cannot recall a single instance from the early 1990s when I was growing up in (then) Calcutta, where someone was meeting me or perhaps a family member after a really long time and remarking, to our utter dismay: “What has happened to your hair? You have gone so bald!”
I can instead recall them putting on their warmest smile, and simply asking, “How are you?”
What they were practicing, unlike us, was ‘social courtesy’. But how does this indicate a deeper social problem?
The culture of exhibitionism and the tendency to demonstrate everything and what-not has never been as widespread as in contemporary times. Technology and the dominance of the visual media, made more accessible, encouraged and promoted by the mass use of the internet and social media, has triggered the spread of narcissistic attitudes. It has resulted in an unnecessary and unhealthy obsession with outward physical appearances and the body image, directly feeding into problems like body image issues, body shaming and increasing rates of eating disorders, rendering some social groups more vulnerable than others.
Come to think of it, we have never been as occupied with the act of exhibiting ourselves as we are now. All imperfections must be culled out because everything is wilfully submitted for public scrutiny. At the end of the day, the idea is to exhibit, for the voyeuristic pleasure of our own selves and others. Outward physical appearances naturally take the upper hand as our preoccupation with the material nature of things grows. We have somehow become distant from what truly defines the people around us – those inner qualities and idiosyncrasies that make them who they are, and which cannot merely be reduced to how they look on a particular day or what they are wearing.
But let us not forget those beautiful qualities that make us human, things that machines or algorithms cannot get at, if we don’t let them – our capability of smiling warmly at a friend we are meeting after ages and asking a simple, “How are you?”, while meaning it too.
So, next time you meet a friend you really care about, take a deep breath and ask yourself – does it really matter how your friend looks on the outside? I think you, like me, might hear yourself answering: “Well! Not really!”
Then, put on your best smile and let your face glow from the happiness that you are feeling to be able to see your friend, and ask with warmth and tenderness: “How are you?”
Anakshi Pal is a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University (A University Established by SAARC Nations), New Delhi.