restricted access 1. The Personal Touch
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11«.«.« 1 ».».» The Personal Touch The Social Map I sit hunched over a pile of papers on my desk when the telephone rings. I pick it up on the third ring, a bit irritated at the interruption, and an island voice immediately asks “Who is this?” I am annoyed at the insistent demand of the person on the other end of the line and am tempted to slam the phone down. After all, he’s the one who called me. He owes me the explanation, not me him. Who are you? I want to shout. And why are you wasting my time like this? But somehow I resist the temptation and identify myself to him. His voice is instantly transformed, from the harsh and demanding tone of a few moments before to something warm and supplicant, even reverential. He knows who I am, I think to myself, and we both relax as the caller begins to offer the customary apologies for infringing on my busy schedule. Later that week another American who has lived on the island for a few years drops into my office and tells me that he would like to find the money to have Micronesian Seminar do a short educational video. We make videos all the time, several a year, on all kinds of topics—health, economic development, social problems of every description—so I ask him what particular issue this video would address. “Phone courtesy,” he answers with a scrunched-up face that betrays his distaste. “I’m sick and tired of picking up the phone only to hear the caller demand to know who I am. These people have to learn how to make calls properly. When someone answers, they should identify themselves and state who they want to talk with. We’ve had phones on the island for 12 Chapter 1 years now, and it’s high time that people learned some courtesy.” Recalling my own experience earlier in the week and countless similar calls before that, I smile slightly as I wonder whether it’s worthwhile to try to explain what it took me years to figure out. This might be a minor misunderstanding, but it’s one repeated many times over in every part of Micronesia. Common island practice in answering the phone conflicts with what is regarded as proper phone courtesy by a westerner. When islanders and foreigners interact with one another, there are bound to be cultural collisions, and this is simply one of them. But there’s more to the matter than this. Underlying the Micronesian ’s “rude” response on the phone is a logic that stems from a very different set of cultural values and attitudes. The incident described above is no more than the flashpoint at which two cultural fields intersect with one another, the swirling waters revealing the juncture of two different turbulent cultural currents. The logic of the American’s response to the phone message may be clear, at least to western readers , but the logic behind the Micronesian’s demand to know who he’s talking to may need clarification. As we come to understand the logic behind this, we’ll have taken a step toward understanding the cultural framework of the island societies. We’ll be in a better position to appreciate the cultural mind-set out of which Micronesians operate. And that, at bottom, is the purpose of this book. Everything is personalized in island society. Everyone has a face and a history. Even if you’re a foreigner, you can’t remain on an island for very long and expect to retain your anonymity; for an islander it’s well nigh impossible. How could this not be the case in such a small population, numbering between a few thousand on one of the larger islands and just a couple hundred on one of the small coral atolls? Just as there are no faces without features, so there are no random events or what westerners might call acts of nature. What is described here— which I will call personalization—is one of the most basic themes in an island culture. Life on a Micronesian island, then, is the sum total of a series of interpersonal encounters with people who know one another. There are no shadowlands in which large numbers of nameless people can find refuge from these close encounters, no crab holes into which per- The Personal Touch 13 sons can crawl to escape recognition. There is no faceless crowd...