Saturday, June 1, 2013

Learning to act right (34)… “Gloves are off”
Torrey Orton
June 1, 2013

“Gloves are off” usually signals engaging with more force, preparing for a fight of some kind, having it out. There’s another usage, at least in my life, which is perhaps equally automatic as this one, but does not enjoy its linguistic popularity. This ungloved hand is a foundation of right action.

 Right action is founded in civility in part, and civility in politenesses, and politenesses in human history, perhaps some even back to our pre-historic precursors. Among these, manners of greeting are central and mostly pass by without notice because they are automatic at the beginning and ending of events. The arrival of Melbourne’s version of winter (8C early mornings) is glove country for me. I show up around 7am at my twice weekly morning post in front of the Fertility Control Clinic to be greeted eventually by the security guard of the day. On his walking down the Clinic path I unglove my right hand with my left and offer the bare paw to him.

Originally, on the first such morning, he declared my ungloving unnecessary. I had to explain that it just is not right to shake a man’s hand (or any other’s, child or adult for that matter!) with a glove on. I couldn’t explain why. He had not grown up in a winter gloved  place, so it was a wonder to him, and no one on the street who I’ve chased it up with has had an idea either why it is the right thing to do.

My point here is not really the historical origins of my sense but rather that I have it automatically functioning, as it always has. It belongs with a number of other politenesses (public ones, especially) which arise out of me under appropriate circumstances. The most recent was standing back for others to enter a lift first. Given that I’m usually undeniably the oldest person standing wherever it is, there’s some natural deference I elicit in my efforts to honour others. A small tussle sometimes ensues of the variety specific to efforts at mutual respect which can only be resolved by one deferring to the other’s need by accepting their respect. I usually stand on my right to be respectful over theirs, but will accede to a repeatedly pled need.

Such habits can be changed, with serious, persistent application. For instance, I can deliver a good Chinese handshake now after a few years practice. This is seriously counter-intuitive to westerners, particularly Anglo ones, who treat any close contact between men (other than jocks in the full spiritual frenzy of sport) as suggesting sexual intent. For Chinese, length of handshake and intensity, nicely balanced and certainly not paw crushing, is a signal of presence and likely eventual persistence. Good starting places for any connection.

There are some other own cultural fine points: right hand only and shaking all the present hands being preferred, even if they are the paws of knowable unknowns – friends of friends; colleagues of colleague. I walked into a psych workshop a week ago and was greeted by the sponsor’s president who I’ve known professionally but distantly for 10 years. I had a coat, a backpack and the day’s course ware in my right arm/hand and offered my left to him as I moved by to let others in.  A few hours later at the midmorning break I stopped by at his table first to re-offer the shake right handed. I just had to on the way to asking a question about other matters.

A neuroscience influenced thinker might point out that these are behaviours intended to “down regulate” the amygdala’s wariness about anything new. I’m not sure this adds too much other than to  the accessibility of the concept of the amygdala’s function. I don’t doubt it is true, nor that an appearance of civil intent can be presented which is also keeping under cover some degree of apprehension about the other.

A few weeks earlier I had stopped into a local restaurant in Albert Park to pass on a long-delayed message from an industry old-timer I had seen months earlier in another place. The boss was in, as were his main 2ICs. I held out my hand to the boss and reported the message with appropriate disclaimers for my lateness in doing so. I was in a rush for some reason and went out immediately only to be stopped in my tracks 100 meters away by noticing that I had insulted the 2ICs. It’s a nice question what prompted the awareness but the proximate trigger was a video replay of the just gone event in which I notice the missing handshakes for the 2ICs!!!

The explanation, I imagine, is a subliminal function which checks experience against templates for right action. I turned around in the middle of my stopped tracks, retraced my steps, asked the boss to get the 2ICs back (one of whom was in the upstairs storage area of the restaurant), shook their hands and explained my need to do so, which they persistently assured me was not required nor even noticed by them. The latter point I wondered about but couldn’t stop to explore. It could have been impolite to do so – disrespectful of their explicit self-knowledges of not needing my paw then!!

I wonder if these behaviours can be picked up in an fMRI “light up”, or any other of its kind.

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