Sadists Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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It's good it's gone. People will no longer visit to watch people being hurt or to take a hit themselves. It was a completely unsavory commercial enterprise we are well without. Here comes the neighborhood.

But what's a socially responsible sadist to do now for New York fun? The perfect solution: don't tell people your job at parties.

Since New York is a company town and the company is the world, it drives the locals mad if they do not know exactly where you fit into the dynamic scheme of comparative status. This is especially cruel at sit-down dinners, where there may be no opportunity for conversation except with the dieter to your right or your left (you are very unlikely to be invited to a dinner party if you are not a dieter). If they don't know who you are because you twirl in different circles, the question "What do you do?" is far more likely to be their opening line than "Pass the sourdough/salt/Tabasco."

Not knowing your fellow-diner's job generates a taut operational panic. How can he be placed in the broad system of power, money and access to restaurants for famous dieters if his job description is unavailable? Is it necessary to treat the chap on the left as if he were a dimwit second cousin requiring only a set of courteously condescending comments? Or could the gal on the right actually be Richard Gere's publicist and thus a potential source of access to gatherings of startlingly famous people?

However egalitarian a community may be, it appears to be vital that its members have some quick and ready way of evaluating status. Among other animals there are a variety of postures and gestures that translate rapidly into "I am dominant to you" or "I acknowledge your wondrousness." In one species of Brazilian monkey, only the dominant male of a group has a florid red face, whereas his subordinates come in plain brown wrappers. Since reproductive competition among chimpanzee males has a great deal to do with how plentifully they produce spermatozoa and therefore how ample are their testicles, when male chimps first meet, in order to assess their respective status (don't try this at home) a common greeting is to cradle the other lad's testicles to evaluate his equipment.

Among humans at parties, "What do you do?" may have to suffice. Of course, there are countless clues to general status on the hoof: shininess and clip of hair, size of body and its shape, quality of wool in the suit, silky discretion of the tie, adventurousness of the decolletage, down-home earnestness of the L.L. Bean plaid, Timberland or Manolos. Nevertheless, even good clues can only provide an approximate status fix. It is really necessary to know exactly where the fellow-partygoer stands, or sits. In groups where individuals reflect large forces?for example, in diplomacy or government?people become Your Excellency or Madame Minister or Mister Ambassador. The representatives of large and small or weak or potent countries are able to coexist in the same setting because their links are greased with honorifics that appear to have stood the test of often-turbulent time. The fiction of common status works.

In societies with exquisite passion about status, Japan especially, the uncertainty of "What do you do?" is addressed directly with business cards that are presented instantly, at first meeting. They provide detailed information about where the individual works?the first marker?and then the second, the status of the job. It is vital. When I was in Japan years ago, the only cards I had were about twice as large as usual and had just my name on them?they were useful for very brief messages, before the days of e-mail. But I realized rapidly that it was merely sadism to provide them in Japan, since they produced a fury of uncertainty.

One of the most durable of new social forms is the meeting or convention. I have been to hundreds and, with only a meager overlap in style or form, each one provides a name tag so the tense question "What do you do?" is answered by a glance just below the left collarbone. Even if you don't know the human name on the tag, usually the institutional information is sufficient to permit the tacit negotiation to begin about status. And if you also know the person who is named, then there is a broad alleyway of conversation that is immediately opened if you're interested. Or silence: When I used to write unpopular books, or at least books many anthropologists for foolish or just politically correct reasons disagreed with, when I'd go into an elevator during professional meetings often people would stop talking. But the name tag is a vital contemporary answer to The Question, because there are too many strangers in the world whose identities must be uncovered. And just that small amount of information on the tag lets the world go round.

In the rather glorious new Beatles Anthology, the Four provide some quizzical self-analysis about their fame, what it meant to them and how it coerced their lives. When they did city concerts in America, they had to travel in armored trucks from Wells Fargo. They were the prey of hunting packs. People attending their concerts screamed so loudly and chronically that no one could hear any music at all. And they describe their mounting astonishment at being celebrities, their irritation with endless attention, and a curious sense of philosophical malaise that so many of their fellow human beings would succumb so flagrantly to the notion that they were beings separate from and unequal to everyone else. Anonymity became a privilege they couldn't enjoy?but at least no one had to ask them "What do you do?"

Once I got a droll joke from answering the question. I had the good luck to be seated next to Saul Steinberg, the cartoonist/artist, at a chatty dinner. I had recently acquired his remarkable book The Passport, which was a fierce and brilliant evocation in line drawings of bureaucrats, fascists, paper-pushing pettiness-masters. I told him how much I admired it and went on about it a few moments. At that point, he suddenly became interested in me, clearly an advanced connoisseur.

"And what do you do?" he asked.

"I'm an anthropologist."

"That's a good alibi."

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