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Friday, December 09, 2005

Holidays Wrapped in the Hospitality-Obligate System

Because I work in a corporate environment, I'm always aware of the subtext of how power is being played during the course of a day, throughout the lifetime of a project that involves several people and cross-functional groups. I try not to become obsessed with the power games, but I am very mindful and aware of them and how I fit into the mix.
Rituals of power have been around for thousands of years. Some of these rituals have remained intact over thousands of years, surviving eons with only minor changes. Many of the power rituals revolve around food and meals. The religious significance is blatantly obvious...a meal shared together is supposed to establish a sense of unity. It is very common for a Supervisor, Director, or some other big wig to foot the bill for a holiday meal. I tend to believe that this gesture smacks of some kind of power play instead of being an act of holiday cheer or kindness. I believe that this is an attempt to wield the power of a corporate expense account (of course the big wigs don't ultimately end up paying for this gesture of goodwill from their own pockets...) as some kind of Eucharistic transubstantiation. This comes from an ancient power ritual of "breaking bread together" or "having a bite together", which had very little to do with hospitality. It's not so much that the Supervisors, Managers, and Executives want to have a meal with all of the underlings (all of the people who don't have people), nor is it posited that lower level employees can each be simply bought for a $15 meal. The power of this gesture lies in the fact that it is based on an unconscious memory of the significance of eating a meal together as a gesture of peaceful intentions.
In many tribes of other cultures a stranger must share something to eat with the members before being accepted. From the tribe’s point of view the stranger has been extended some hospitality. Upon accepting this hospitality, an obligation has been placed upon the stranger. From the stranger’s point of view, he has announced his peaceful intentions and accepted those of the tribe. This is pretty much the same game with different players in the corporate environment. The upper echelon management assumes the role of the tribe and all of the underlings being the strangers. An exchange has taken place, but it does not really involve, except in the ritualistic sense. In some ways, by accepting the hospitality handed down to them, the underlings have given up a tiny parcel of power.
Some people are very aware of this power subtext and how it plays out into the hospitality-obligation game. The receiving and giving of presents is a prime example. How many times have you or someone you know received an unexpected present around the holidays? What is the most common reaction? You say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” This is because most people cannot accept a gift without immediately thinking about how it can be repaid. After receiving an unexpected gift, the gift giving exchange can sometimes reach neurotic levels. Subconsciously, most of us have the basic instinct to not want to be placed in a position of debt to someone. The worst news around the holidays is arrival of a card or gift from someone to whom we have sent nothing, especially when it’s too late to buy the return gift to cancel out the obligation. In this case, an obligation is put on us and even an expensive, belated gift cannot fully cancel out our obligation. You may find yourselves bitterly exchanging gifts for several holidays to come, or in extreme cases simply deciding not to see them again.
An example, of this type of power play and the hospitality-obligation couplet that is used to gain leverage is painfully obvious in Ik tribesman of Uganda. The trivia question goes something like this….
“Why do Ik tribesman build their houses at night?”
You can probably guess the answer…Ik tribesman try to build their houses secretly at night to avoid obligation to others. It is customary for Ik tribesman to offer help to a man, who is building his house and in turn he is obligated to repay the men, who helped him in food. You say…”So? That’s nice. That’s what neighbors are for.” The only problem with this scenario is that the Ik tribesmen live at starvation level. The helpful tribesmen can fulfill their social obligation to their house-building fellow tribesman, while simultaneously starving him out and possibly killing him, based on the hospitality-obligate system.  
My point is that most social customs, especially in the corporate environment, that have the trappings of goodwill and hospitality are actually concealed acts of aggression. We practice a lot of these customs without knowing their origins. Shaking hands originated as a way of proving that we are not carrying weapons in our right hands. Hence the weirdness associated with the left-handed shake – an act of deception. Standing up when new guests approach our table a dinner function was not originally done as a courtesy. It was done because our ancestors could not draw their swords from a sitting position.
Enough of my paranoid ramblings…now you kind of know what its like to be inside of my head.
Responses and other opinions are welcome.


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