Along with vague threats such as nuclear terror and adult acne, the fear of hurting people’s feelings will lead me to a grim mental impasse. Because generalised anxiety is one of my primal instincts, it spars with what little sense I have and often overrides it, easing the captive mental hamster back on to its wheel.
The inability to drop a worrisome thought can usually be solved with a tasty meal, especially if it’s a meal substantial enough to make me feel full to the point of stupid. A great Reuben sandwich can inhibit gross motor activity for the better part of an afternoon that might have otherwise been productive.
Nobody likes to be informed that they have been offensive without intending to be and when I’m stressed, I can be curt and dismissive. Like any remorse junkie, I’ll squirm after being made aware of my indiscretions. I appreciate the idea of Radical Honesty, which is a popular technique for transforming relationships using extreme and uncompromising bluntness. But, like radical dieting, I feel like it can also do a lot of needless -damage.
A few years ago, I butted heads with someone over a party we were meant to be hosting. He insisted that RSVPs were obsolete and that asking people to pre-commit was archaic and unnecessary. Old-fashioned or not, I wanted them anyway. I gave in – but I regretted it when we ended up with four times more food than we needed. The ease of correspondence enabled by email, texting and other forms of personal messaging might be partially responsible for the decline of many social graces. Courtesies are no longer common, some aspects of politeness are seen as either stuffy or provincial and certain manners are perceived to be corny or quaint.
When a candlelit cake is marched into a restaurant dining room and people start singing and celebrating, my cheeks burn with sympathetic humiliation. I find that sort of thing unbearable. In Emirati culture, many of us prefer to lounge on floor pillows instead of elevated furniture. We also might opt to eat with our hands over using utensils. I don’t question or judge the applicability of couches and forks and I don’t feel insecure in a world that promotes their use. Other people embrace naturism as a political, cultural or spiritual movement, including monks who practise Jainism and the ascetic Hindu philosophy of Ajivika. For me, comfort has a lot to do with values but also the context of those values, so we can adapt our behaviour to suit it. I wouldn’t eat without utensils around a dinner table here in New Mexico because making others uncomfortable and inviting them to stare would ruin my night.
Rules of conduct have changed, too, in part due to the false sentiments (happy birthday, total stranger!) and assumptions of familiarity (nice baby, guy I haven’t seen since kindergarten!) created by social networking, but also because people are more laid-back and informal than they used to be. I love my copy of Munro Leaf’s 1946 children’s book, How to Behave and Why, for its timeless and pithy observations: be honest, fair, strong and wise.
And while you’re at it, be on time (or reasonably close), accept “no” for an answer and please stop throwing potlucks, the bane of my social life in this cosy mountain town full of goodwill, community thinking and mismatched china. Potlucks are my favourite thing to complain about in Santa Fe, closely followed by the thin-crust pies at Pizza Centro, a local New York-style pizzeria that produces dazzling crusts with perfect consistency. These wonderful crusts come at the expense of the toppings, which the staff mess up with perfect consistency. When we love something enough, we show up, for better or for worse, with a kind of blind resilience – not hoping for the wrong pizza, but not averse to bringing it home either.
“Good enough” is a consolation prize, but when all you’re looking for is consolation, it’s good enough.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
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