WAYS OF BOWING FROM THE HEART
Both straight and improvisational exchanges presuppose a number of ways to pay psychological dues. For example, we may simply feign the owed feeling, sometimes without intending to succeed; or we may offer the greater gift of trying to amplify a real feeling that we already have; or we may try to reframe an event and offer ourselves for the moment reconstituted by successful deep acting. In light of these possibilities, spontaneous feeling itself becomes a choice of what gesture to make.2
There are also various forms of nonpayment. For example, here is the reaction of a young woman who accepts an invitation to a rock music party:
The people I was with kept saying, “Isn’t this great?” Like I was supposed to feel this new sensation coming over me and experience something really fabulous. Actually I was feeling depressed and not at all like dancing to that acid rock music. The way I handled the situation was by just listening to the music (in a pretty straight manner) and not pretending to be carried away by it. I would have felt too awkward acting out a role that I really couldn’t play.
By not rocking her head, tapping her feet, or drumming her fingers, this young woman paid her escort no pretense of being engrossed, to say nothing of actually trying to feel that way. She risked letting him worry that she wasn’t having a good time and also risked seeming to be a wet blanket. Furthermore, she offered him no explanation for her inner retreat from the scene. This is the rock-bottom minimum in psychological bowing. She simply acknowledged the ideal— that she is expected to offer some sort of payment.3
Nonpayment sometimes blossoms into antipayment. This is the case when a person not only refuses to work up the expected feelings, or even plausible displays of them, but makes no effort to prevent opposite feelings from showing. Consider this young man’s reaction to Christmas, a time of giving and receiving:
During Christmas one should have feelings of happiness and love. But it’s been a time of anger, bitterness, and somberness for me. I feel life closing in on me, and I respond by hating—hating not only the ritual of Christmas but also the pseudo-feeling that’s attached to it. Christmas heightens my feelings of anger about all the things that I’ve failed to do during the year. Instead of viewing the new year with optimism, I remain disenchanted and angry. All in all, the Christmas season must present a catharsis for me because I never vent my feelings more than at that particular time of the year.
If, in terms of debt payment, this young Scrooge’s blast at “pseudo-feeling” is one notch below the response of the young woman at the rock music party, then the response of this young man to his Bar Mitzvah is one notch above:
A Bar Mitzvah is supposed to be a joyous time for any thirteen – year-old Jewish child. As I remember, I was not very happy at mine. I was just performing a task. All my friends, at their Bar
Mitzvahs, were fairly happy; but I can only remember being in a sort of dazed state, just reacting to events. I felt more like a spectator than like a participant. How did I handle it? I guess I was worried that it was my fault that I didn’t feel happy.
If we cannot manage to enjoy or feel grateful, we may at least manage to feel guilty for not enjoying what another has given. Guilt or worry may function as a promissory note. Guilt upholds feeling rules from the inside: it is an internal acknowledgment of an unpaid psychological debt. Even “I should feel guilty” is a nod in the direction of guilt, a weaker confirmation of what is owed.
We are commonly aware of pretending to feel something when we want to be polite. Pretending is a statement of deference to the other, an offering. Consider how this young woman describes her feelings about graduating from college:
To my parents and friends, graduation was a really big deal, especially for my parents, since I’m the oldest in the family. For some reason, however, I couldn’t get excited about it. I had had a good time at college and all, but I was ready to get out and I knew it. Also, we had practiced the ceremony so many times that it had lost its meaning to me. I put On an act, though, and tried to act real emotional and hug my friends and cry, but I knew inside I didn’t really feel it.
Hugging and crying—work on expression—was this woman’s form of homage to her parents.
We may also try to avoid displaying ambivalent feelings. For example, this woman loves her husband and identifies with him, but she also envies him:
Whenever my husband leaves on a trip everyone smiles and says to me, “Aren’t you excited?” My husband is a gymnast, and he was nationally ranked last year. Just recently he went to Japan, to the Center for Men’s Gymnastics. With all the work of getting him off and my feelings of being left behind, I’m not excited or happy but often depressed. There he is going off to all these exciting places, free, and here I am holding down the fort, doing everyday things. When he went to Japan, I felt depressed and deserted when everyone else thought I should be happy and excited. I thought I should be excited too, so sometimes I acted excited and happy; but at other times I cried for no reason or picked fights with my husband.
Her attempt to avert envy is an offering to the marriage, an offering in this case of surface display.4
To feign a feeling is to offer another person behavioral evidence of what we want him to believe we are thinking and feeling. In bad acting, what the other sees is the effort of acting itself—which remains a gesture of homage, though perhaps one of the slightest.
Finally, we may offer a tribute so generous that it actually transforms our mood and our thoughts to match what others would like to see. For example, a woman from a provincial Italian family, whose many aunts and uncles had thought of her as an old maid since she was nineteen, greeted her thirty-second birthday as a single woman in this way; “Left to my own devices, I would have spent the whole day brooding. As it was, I tried to feel what ice cream and balloons are supposed to make you feel about a birthday. I felt really grateful to my friends for coming and for going to the trouble of trying to perk me up. It worked. I managed to have a really good time.” This was a generous bow. Allowing her friends to induce her to feel cheerful was the highest tribute payable in this currency.
To sum up, display and emotion work are not matters of chance. They come into play, back and forth. They come to mean payment or nonpayment of latent dues. “Inappropriate emotion” may be construed as a nonpayment or mis- payment of what is due, an indication that we are not seeing things in the right light. The Bar Mitzvah not enjoyed, the Christmas that raises anger, the party that proves boring, the funeral that seems meaningless, the sexual contact that feels lonely, times when a mother is not loved or a friend not
missed—all these are moments without their appropriate feeling, moments of unmade bows from the heart.
There are many things people do for each other to maintain reciprocity, quite apart from psychological bowing. Psychological bowing, in turn, may be a means of expressing deeper and more pervasive bonds. Marriage, for example, usually involves some external exchange of services: I usually fix the car, mow the lawn, and do the laundry; you shop, give me backrubs, and do the fancy cooking. But marriage partners clearly exchange more latent favors. “I’ll overlook your distress at large gatherings if you’ll overlook my fatness; I’ll help you calm your fear of adventure if you’ll help me stop testing my limits.” Exchanges that are even more latent may border on fusion. “ I’ll be your warmth if you’ll be my steadiness.” The deeper the bond, the more central and latent the gifts exchanged, and the more often a person compensates in one arena for what is lacking in another. One way that such compensations are achieved is through the medium of emotional gift exchange.
The exchange between people of equal status in a stable relationship is normally even. We return a worked-up cheerfulness, a pretended interest, or a suppressed frustration for something else that we both consider equivalent over the long haul. Over time, the debtor makes up the debt or sends promissory notes persuading the other to join in imagining a future time of repayment.
However, when one person has higher status than another, it becomes acceptable to both parties for the bottom dog to contribute more. Indeed, to have higher status is to have a stronger claim to rewards, including emotional rewards. It is also to have greater access to the means of enforcing claims. The deferential behavior of servants and women—the encouraging smiles, the attentive listening, the appreciative laughter, the comments of affirmation, admiration, or concern—comes to seem normal, even built into personality rather than inherent in the kinds of exchange that low-status people commonly enter into. Yet the absence of smiling, of appreciative laughter, of statements of admiration or concern are thought attractive when understood as an expression of machismo. Complementarity is a common mask for inequality in what is presumed to be owing between people, both in display and in the deep acts that sustain it.
Emotion is a sense that tells about the self-relevance of reality. We infer from it what we must have wanted or expected or how we must have been perceiving the world. Emotion is one way to discover a buried perspective on matters. Especially when other ways of locating ourselves are in bad repair, emotion becomes important. We put emotion to private use. Through deep acting we share it and offer it in exchange. We continually try to put together things that threaten to pull apart—the situation, an appropriate way to see and feel about it, and our own real thoughts and feelings. Rules as to the type, intensity, duration, timing, and placing of feelings are society’s guidelines, the promptings of an unseen director. The stage, the props, and fellow members of the cast help us internally assemble the gifts that we freely exchange.
In private life, we are free to question the going rate of exchange and free to negotiate a new one. If we are not satisfied, we can leave; many friendships and marriages die of inequality But in the public world of work, it is often part of an individual’s job to accept uneven exchanges, to be treated with disrespect or anger by a client, all the while closeting into fantasy the anger one would like to respond with. Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights to feeling and display. The ledger is supposedly evened by a wage.
I have tried in Part One to describe the workings of an emotional system in normal private life. In Part Two I try to show what happens when a gift becomes a commodity and that commodity is a feeling.