Thursday, September 20, 2012

Shifgrethor and Ta'arof

I read an interesting piece in this month's Atlantic about Ta'arof, an Iranian form of civility in which its participants (i.e. everyone) negotiate the world of social rank and etiquette through self-deference and self-abasement. To quote from wikipedia:
It is a way of denying your will to please your counterpart, however the will is only denied because of the custom and not to please the counterpart. But there are situations where tarof persist upon a request to make the counterpart genuinely satisfied. Tarof often causes misunderstandings between both parties and is a source for awkward situations in a social setting.
The closest one can come to tarof in the western culture is the question of "Who's paying the restaurant bill?" This is an awkward situation where everybody in the company is reaching for their wallets and it's usually resolved by social status, the one with the highest income, biggest reason or most power pays. But, still everyone insists on paying.
As I read I remembered shifgrethor from The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel all Karhidians have shifgrethor, a sort of social status which can be gained or lost in conversation or interaction with anyone else. For example: Genly Ai, the emissary from another world, arrives in Karhide without shifgrethor. He does not even realize that he is "playing" shifgrethor until later, when he has already been thoroughly confused by the actions of the people around him. His most important ally, the Karhidish Prime Minister Estraven, knows that Genly is in danger. But Estraven cannot give Genly direct advice, because that would harm (I think) both their shifgrethor. Naturally, Estraven believes that Genly should be able to decode his vagueness given the knowledge that they are playing shifgrethor, allowing Estraven to communicate while maintaining shifgrethor. Genly does not understand. Difficulties ensue.

Shifgethor is competition in conversation, so that one person may "win" more status over another, or "lose" and prove oneself a fool.

I find this all very interesting. The concept of an adversarial conversation cloaked in false modesty or false friendliness is not unknown in American culture*.  But the idea that, at all times, in every interaction, something fundamental about your status or honor could be at stake sounds terrifying.

*A couple of examples that spring to mind:

-Mean Girls; deeply gendered

-Beer commercials in which a boyfriend seeks to trick his girlfriend to gain status with his male friends; in which misogyny is the currency that adds status

Perhaps Le Guin imagined shifgrethor in response to this sort of thinking?

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