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The power of convention

If we were to break society down to its simplest form, isn’t it mainly about eating? Putting meals on the table, securing food sources, providing nourishment to those we love, sharing things politely and fairly. It perhaps naturally follows that “Table manners are as old as human society itself, the reason being that no human society can exist without them.”

Isn’t food, in many ways, society’s foundation? This regular requirement that serves to structure our days, guide our activities, and give our lives both purpose and meaning. Ways people have regulated these things is quite fascinating – isn’t it all an expression of how we stand in relation to one another and to nature itself? (Notes One)

There’s this whole world of ritual woven around food: ways things are done, how we should act, what it means if we don’t. Knowing ‘all that’ is surely a large part of what it means to navigate our social world? Understanding its forms, meeting expectations, taking part in this complicated dance of human interaction to ensure important principles stay alive.

It’s like the language of society. Rather than making things up, we learn what’s gone before, grasp its meaning, and adapt it if needed while ensuring nothing essential is lost. Convention perhaps offers the starting point for innovation: knowing what’s expected and why, we can know what it means to change or drop things altogether. Isn’t it important we know?

Reading “The Rituals of Dinner” by Margaret Visser, it’s intriguing to hear all the ways people create and carry forward meaning. She paints a picture of convention as a form of communication that helps us interrelate and engage with the values at the heart of our community. That we might be enacting meaning with every encounter is a beautiful idea of what life could be.

All tradition perhaps carries this sense of how groups pass on meaning and structure, linking the past through the present into the future (Notes Two). Inherited practices might seem a senseless burden, but maybe it’s true that “if we stop celebrating, we also soon cease to understand; the price for not taking the time and the trouble is loss of communication.”

If shared realities are “communication with others” and “it is only the individual who can personally mean what is going on” then isn’t this dance what’s expressing our appreciation of the ground on which we stand? So many essential human and social values seem deeply embedded in these things.

Recently, though, “old manners are dying and new ones are still being forged… Sometimes we hold the terrifying conviction that the social fabric is breaking up altogether… backsliding from previous social agreements that everyone should habitually behave with consideration for others. At other times a reaction against the social rituals of our own recent past leads us to lump all manners together as empty forms, to be rejected on principle.”

Might the place convention holds within society and meaning woven into its rituals be important to keep in mind?

Notes and References:

“The Rituals of Dinner. The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners” by Margaret Visser, (Penguin Group), 1991.

Note 1: Things with life have to be maintained
Note 1: Common sense as a rare & essential quality
Note 1: Frameworks of how we relate
Note 1: The difference humanity makes
Note 1: What we create by patterns of behaviour
Note 2: Social starting points for modern ways
Note 2: Any such thing as normal?
Note 2: Culture as a conversation across time
Note 2: Different places, different ways

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