Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Artificial is sometimes better than Natural

I just read an article at Inside Higher Ed about two sites-- and Rate Your Students. But I'm not interested right now in the article itself, though there is plenty of meat there, both in the use of sites like and in the (perceived) need of professors to respond in kind. No, I'm interested most by this comment, by Larry:

While, indeed, it is pathetic, the combination of these two sites should us the truth about humanity. This is the way most people really talk when they are not forced to pretend to be enthusiastic about everything. Perhaps if people didn’t see the need to be “congenial” or use “social skills” all the time, humans could interact with each other on a much more meaningful level.

This attitude-- that social skills or congeniality suppress meaningful interactions-- is by no means an attitude that is exclusive to Larry, and in fact at one time I shared it. But over time, I have come to the conclusion that those social skills and occasional forced congeniality are precisely what enable meaningful interactions in the first place. It's not by accident that nearly every etiquette manual I've read describe them as social lubricants. They grease the wheels of interaction so that we don't spend all our time fighting about the precise definition of "is", and can get on to the more substantive matters we originally intended to discuss.

This is not a new idea, and I'm certainly not claiming any originalty in expression for myself here. I find it more interesting how my own perspective on this has changed over time than any real or imagined deficits in Larry's argument.

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