The code of polite conversation

Sean Ward has a very interesting (and readable) article titled “Functional Differentiation and the Crisis in Early Modern Upper-Class Conversation: The Second Madame, Interaction, and Isolation.” (2006. Seventeenth-Century French Studies).

Ward discusses the breakdown of polite conversation in late 17th-early 18th century France. The decline of polite conversation among the French aristocracy happened as functional differentiation was displacing stratification. Citing Luhmann, Ward refers to the code of polite conversation as pleasure/ennui. Conversation for the sake of conversation was an activity reserved for the nobility, and the rule was to be agreeable and clever. Serious, controversial topics were excluded.

Ward mentions an interesting conflict between religious communication and polite conversation, relating to the efforts of 18th century missionaries to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The Native Americans treated the Gospel as everyday communication, which one was not expected to take too seriously, rather than a special kind of communication–the communication related to religious salvation.

The Native Americans do not question the Truths of the Gospel, which would be acceptable and even welcome, for saying no to Christianity today brings with it the possibility of saying yes tomorrow. Instead, they engage in mere civility which achieves nothing but the avoidance of disputes. The interactional impasse results, I believe, from the different way the two groups categorise the encounter. According the Europeans’ interpretation, the Native Americans do not acknowledge thatĀ the encounter belongs to a specific functional sphere (namely, religion).
Rather, they behave as if the encounter is simply polite conversation.

Some eighty years earlier, Madame too draws attention to the incompatibility of religious communication and polite conversation. In 1705 her half-sister Amelise writes that she receives great pleasure from listening to a sermon. Madame is incredulous: ‘To listen for an hour to a buffoon, whom one may not contradict, holding forth from his pulpit may be good, but it is not pleasant.’ Madame grudgingly concedes that it is appropriate to apply to a sermon the moral code good/evil but inappropriate to apply, as her half-sister does, the code pleasure/ennui, which is specific to polite conversation.

The code of moral communication can be identified as good/evil, while the generalized communication medium can be identified as respect. Moral communication communicates whether certain persons are to be respected or disrespected. This, of course, is incompatible with the pleasure/ennui code.

According to Ward, the art of polite conversation declined among the nobility because of distrust, along with the fact that (due to democratization) the communications among the nobility became disconnected from real political power.

Due to functional differentiation, it is considered wrong to discuss business or politics at church or to discuss politics, religion, or intimate relations in casual, fleeting interactions–or with people one doesn’t really know. It is safer to discuss the weather. Different kinds of communication are reserved for different social systems.

Ward also wrote:

Despite the early training in functional differentiation available to
European society in subsystems like politics (the classic example is the
Italian city-state; the classic text, Machiavelli’s II princip), and despite
the ongoing shift towards functional differentiation as the primary form
of differentiation for the entire society, early modem Europe to a great
degree still displayed a hierarchical structure. It is important to remember that hierarchical differentiation not only facilitates the maintenance of an unequal distribution of wealth and power, it also facilitates efficient communication. If a society is to survive it must communicate. Such communication is needed to decide how to distribute resources, whether to make peace or war, whether to expand or contract territorial holdings, and so forth. In the absence of mass media, such communication must take place in person. And it can hardly take place efficiently if everyone has a say. Hierarchically organised societies therefore restrict important communication to a relatively small social group, whose members are (more or less) equally qualified to communicate. Equality is thus the ordering principle within a social stratum, inequality the ordering principle between social strata.

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