Tuesday, March 8, 2011

America: The Slovening

There was a time when personal grooming and fashion were considered absolutely vital in America. Formality was the norm. If you were going to church on Sunday, men wore a suit and a hat, women a dress and bonnet (or hat). The same for everyday tasks, like going to work or the grocery store. Nearly everything was more formal, from face-to-face greetings and salutations to written correspondence. In fact, someone could expect to spend a significant amount of time grooming and dressing, writing a letter, or doing most other things. What's fascinating to me is that as chores like cooking, cleaning, and traveling have been made faster and easier by modern conveniences, we've at the same time simply abandoned formalities that, in theory, we now could spend more time on.

Scott Adams pokes fun at this a bit on the cover of his book "Casual Day has Gone Too Far." In it, we see Dilbert and his co-workers in various attire, from a tutu to completely nude. It's funny, but it's actually not all that far off. Have you looked into a classroom lately? Dilbert in his bathrobe is humorous, but students in their pajamas are just slovenly. What started to become commonplace in colleges a decade ago has now, as often happens, filtered down into the primary schools. It wouldn't surprise me to see it make its way into the workplace shortly thereafter. Certainly the suit and tie has gone out of fashion at most businesses.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to lament the passing of the necktie per se. But I wonder how much more casual our society can really get. Long, carefully-handwritten letters have given way to emails (which, incredibly, are also falling out of fashion already), twitter posts, and text messages. Business attire has given way to business casual, to casual, and (at least in schools) ultimately to scruffy, unkempt sleepware.

I suspect that this is the natural progression of modern society - as we're challenged less, we challenge ourselves less. As things get easier to do, we expect less of ourselves. Food and nutrition are, I think, another fine example of this behaviour. Since the 1980s, or even as far back as the invention of the TV Dinner in the 1950s, meals have been changing from formal affairs of carefully-selected foods and family togetherness to a continuous daily grazing interspersed by periods of greater caloric intake, but with very little non-processed food involved. The meal is no longer, replaced by the "eating occasions" that pop up all through the day. And formal food - found on the outside walls of the supermarket, for the most part - has been replaced with the quicker, more casual "food product" which is barely recognizable as food at all, either in appearance or based in its list of ingredients. I mean, really, who'd chose "high fructose corn syrup" as an ingredient if they were going to sit down and decide what to feed their family? And if you did decide you needed it as an ingredient, where would you use it - in the dessert? Or in every single item you prepared?

I don't miss formality for formality's sake. Suits and ties, let alone the powdered wigs of our founding fathers, were uncomfortable to wear, expensive to maintain, and added a lot of extra time to the simple process of getting dressed. I'm happy with a T-shirt and jeans for the most part. But I do lament the loss of some of the attitudes that went along with the formality. The idea of taking personal pride on one's appearance was part of an overall code of behavior that I think made society more genteel. The quest for "faster and easier" threatens to make us a weak, fat, slovenly people. I've certainly seen it in myself. It's something I'd like to change. It's something I'd like very much to help my children avoid completely. But that won't make much of a dent in our overall culture, and I'm profoundly troubled that it's going to get worse for us before it gets better - that our casual attitude toward personal grooming, toward health and nutrition, toward our studies (I mean, don't even get me started on kids attitudes toward doing their homework today, or the lax expectations of college professors toward their students' quality of work), toward work, and toward social interactions will leave us poorly prepared to deal with the challenges of the next fifty years.

If, as I suspect, our formality gave us a buffer - if slowing things down and being deliberate about our choices, our interactions, our communications, made us more thoughtful and considerate - then abandoning that formality may not just leave us as casual, but as casualties.

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