Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Secret Handshakes

I remember the movies of old where spies would greet each other with innocuous phrases and expect a particular response which would indicate that the respondent was the person being sought. And then of course there are the secret handshakes which served the same purpose.

I think all cultures have these codes for greeting others and the person being greeted can be easily thrown off balance if the response isn't what is expected. The Japanese bow and the greeted person must bow at the same depth as the other person. The Thais do not shake hands but wai (A bow accompanied by a Catholic-type amen gesture of the hands). Traditional Filipinos greeted their elders with a mano. Some cultures even expect males to kiss each other like females do (the Russians and the Arabs, I think).

There are some rules regarding greetings that are familiar to people within cultures. Ang hindi pagmano or not kissing an adult relative is considered an insult in the Philippines. Shaking the hand of an adult relative is relatively strange. (I don't remember ever shaking my brothers' hands to greet them Merry Christmas for example. Usually we give each other a hug or a pat on the back).

I remember one famous incident where an American President and a Russian President kissed each other and the American President did the unthinkable by wiping his mouth with a hankie after the kiss.

The only difference between spies and all these cultural form of greetings is that spies keep their codes secret while cultures do not. The greeting forms of all cultures, however, are codes no less which are as loaded with meaning.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Of Skirting Rules and Jewelry

Most of the rules we live by are not codified. In fact, if a particular practice is officially made illegal through codification and requires enforcement, the rule is weak because the presecribed practice does not come naturally to the collective.

A rule requiring students to wear IDs on campus is weak because it goes against the natural tendency of students not to want to wear their IDs for whatever reason. Even with guards posted at strategic points on campus, students sometimes still walk around without IDs or with IDs borrowed from their friends. The long list of students violating the ID rule is an indication that the ID wearing rule is weak. (Moralists beware: I am not saying that the rule is wrong. I am just saying that the prescribed behavior is not natural)

A lot of rules that are not codified are strong. There was a time when I sat on a committee tasked to institute a dress code in the University and one member suggested that there should be a ban on garish jewelry. My reaction back then was that students never wear garish jewelry implying that it must already be an unwritten rule among students that they should not wear garish jewelry.

This afternoon, while waiting for something at the administration building, I saw two girls wearing skirts from some school with a uniform. I realized then that I almost never see female students wear skirts in the university where I work. It must be an unwritten rule that discourages them from wearing skirts. I remember girls being teased, "Wow, mukha kang babae ngayon" if they come to school in skirts.

Some rules need not be written and these have become very much part of our taken-for-granteds. These unwritten rules are more powerful than any security guard lurking behind a post waiting for unsuspecting students who fail to wear their IDs.