Inspired by William Cowper, The Connoisseur
by Esther Yu
Undoubtedly, one of the more peculiar outgrowths of civilized society is the practice of the introduction. Upon meeting for the first time, dogs fall to sniffing one another’s perianal areas by way of making acquaintance, while cats (generally a more modest species) greet each other by flattening their ears and hissing. It is unacceptable for human creatures to do either, inclined as we may be to consider either of these approaches more accurate expressions of our own desires. Instead, human creatures engage in the partially formalized and oft-maligned dance known as the introduction.
The introduction takes place between two unfamiliar individuals, and may be facilitated by another person wishing to bring the unacquainted parties together. The practice, heretofore, has been grossly undervalued, and quite unfairly conceived of as a social maneuver for feigning politeness in the presence of strange company. The introduction, however, bears the weight of a much greater significance that may be better brought to light upon reflecting on its role throughout the course of a lifetime. Humans begin as social beings with no need for artful introductions. One youngster joins another in the sandbox, and both fall happily to excavating without great ado. Through grade school and into high school, our companions are generally a fixed set, and joint activities both in and out of the classroom offer abundant opportunities to interact with others besides. Thus the single dramatic scene of introduction does not have the central place that it does for those more advanced in years. The university is the first setting in which introductions must be routinely performed, and the practice only gains in importance from then on as one proceeds to the workplace and beyond. The addition of this practice into one’s social repertoire thus marks an important transition into the world of mature adulthood, as one begins taking responsibility for forging social liaisons in circumstances that would not otherwise be conducive to intercourse.
However, I fear that the proper introduction remains far beyond the grasp of more than a few of my peers and not a few of my betters. It is a source of great vexation to me, as I have always strived to promote the most civilized kind of relations among my acquaintance. Indeed, I have long been known as the leading member and hostess of the Sunday Night Supper Club. It is my pleasure each week to gather together an ever-expanding circle of acquaintances to engage in lively discussion about every worthy topic known to man, from arts and letters to physics and politics. Some might find it burdensome to plan the invitations and prepare the victuals, but I do believe that there could be no more agreeable way to spend an evening than in expanding the scope of my knowledge and acquaintances. I must confess, however, that while great good has been done in our meetings to encourage conviviality, great evil, too, has transpired in the form of maladroit introductions–the scourge, indeed, of social exchange. It is not my purpose here to codify the proper introduction, but I do feel it necessary to exorcise some of the most egregiously awkward practices of unheeding socialites–not only of my supper club, but in the wider world around us as well. One fears for the whole of society in the hands of such ill-mannered men and women, who, by promoting such excessive discomfort in the introduction process, do enough to make one wish that no new acquaintance ever need be made.
The first and foremost blunder that has been made with increasing frequency in our era of casual exchange is the No Name introduction. The No Name occurs most often between two individuals thrown together in a confined public space for an extended period of time. A long queue at the market, for example, or a tightly packed train car often provides the setting for such a careless exchange, which for courtesy’s sake, should occur to prevent the discomfort level from rising to unbearable heights. The objection I have in mind is not the exchange itself, but the manner in which it often unfolds. It happened just this past week at the butcher’s, while I was waiting upon a pound of ground beef for the week’s Supper Club spaghetti dish. A kind, bespectacled woman beside me struck up a conversation to spare us both the pain of ogling raw flank steak in silence, and proceeded to tell me not only how she fared with rheumatism, but also the details of her college-aged daughter’s ruination at the hands of a most treacherous brother of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. The lurid story was cut short when the man behind the counter began to assist her with her order, but not before she sorrowfully confided that the young man had denied both wrongdoing and responsibility in leaving her daughter with child.
On my way home, I continued to reflect upon the disturbing case of the gentlewoman’s daughter. Upon passing the coffeehouse, it occurred to me that one of my acquaintances was involved with social work, and spent her time assisting such hapless young women in making their way through this cruel, heartless world. I turned back, hoping to share this counsel with the kind woman. I determined, too, to extend an invitation to her daughter to dine with our party so as to introduce her to the social worker, who might be of help. At this time, however, I found the Unnamed Woman walking in quite the opposite direction, and impassably separated from me by a horde of young mischief-makers darting about haphazardly on flat boards equipped with small wheels. “Ma’am,” I called out, wishing to catch her attention, but to no avail. What could be done? If only I had inquired after her name earlier! Would it be possible now indelicately to raise my voice to address her? “Ma’am, YOU, the one whose daughter has been most unhappily used by the vile ΣΑΕ confederate!” The failure to exchange proper appellations at the very start of a conversation is a most troublesome misstep, and leads to a good number of less tragic but no less uncomfortable second encounters.
Much more can be said, but I will leave the reader with just one additional note on the introduction. Nothing does more harm to a genial first encounter than the Inconclusively Concluded introduction. In this day and age, the frequency with which we make new acquaintances is overwhelming and demands us, more than ever, properly to discern the value of each new relationship that is formed. The conclusion of the meeting, then, becomes a crucial moment for jointly determining the importance of the newly established contact.
If one has no great desire to meet with the new acquaintance again, one should clearly state, “It was nice to meet you,” and perhaps, “I’ll see you around.” Under no circumstances, however, should one resort to that odiously disingenuous suggestion: “We should have lunch sometime!” Who among us have not devoted half an hour to sharing hopes and dreams with new acquaintances, only to hear that empty phrase at the end, which ensures nothing more than that the proposed meeting will certainly not take place! I feel it is my duty to declaim against the dishonesty of the phrase, and to urge my dear readers to avoid ending social exchanges with such a marked lack of commitment to further contact.
Understandably, an individual may wish to keep the possibility of further communication open without forcing the opposing party unwillingly to commit. In that case, it is appropriate to inquire, “Would you like to meet for coffee sometime?”, to which the only appropriate answer, of course, is in the affirmative. The affirmative reply, however, by no means ensures that a future meeting will occur, for this party is perfectly free to deny the invitation by stating, “Yes, we should some time.” If one sincerely wishes to develop a more intimate friendship, the response should involve setting a definite date and time for the meeting rather than leaving it to serendipity. As I have much more to say to you my dear readers on this topic than space allows, it is my hope that you will join me again in the future to reflect on this most important of social rituals. It is my pleasure to invite you to meet with me again–tomorrow.