5. The Uses of Information
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62«.«.« 5 ».».» The Uses of Information Watching One’s Words I was in the airport lounge on Guam talking to a Chuukese man about a suicide in his family. He had recognized me and had come over to say hello, and in the course of our conversation he had mentioned the suicide of his son. I was a bit surprised at his willingness to talk about such a personal issue, something that I rarely encountered in dealings with people anywhere in Micronesia . He knew that I was a priest, of course, and was asking for prayers for his family during this difficult time, but he also knew that I had been studying suicide for many years. As we chatted about the death, he seemed to have little hesitation in discussing the more intimate details of the tragedy. At one point in our conversation, however, I mentioned to him a little of what I had already learned about his son’s relationship with some of those in his family. At this, he paused for a moment and asked me a single question: Who had told me all this? I was not terribly taken aback by the question because during the years I had been dealing with sensitive issues I had heard that same question again and again. My experience had taught me that any time I offered any new information that might reflect back on the family, or ventured a possible explanation of the death, the person with whom I was talking would not contradict or expand on the explanation. Instead, he would ask where I had obtained the information. It seemed to me that the reliability of the information I was offering was secondary. The dominant concern was to find out who had said what to me about the matter. The Uses of Information 63 Facts are just facts, we westerners would like to believe. Our concern is to know whether the facts are correct or not so that we can construct as accurate a description of the event as possible. Is it true in the situation described above, for instance, that the son had begun drinking heavily a few months before his death, possibly because of some misunderstanding in the family? Was the son angry at someone in his family for a particular reason? My informant, however, had a different agenda. He wanted to know the source of the stories I had been told. The main issue for him was not the reliability of what I had been told, but who had revealed the information to me. If he knew the source, he might be able to form conclusions of his own about the intention of the person who had been talking to me. For one thing, he could make inferences on how well disposed the informant was to his family. Information can be filtered of personal biases to piece together an objective account, or it can be processed in such a way as to expose those very biases. Is it so surprising that Micronesians should have a distinct preference for the latter? After all, everything in a small island society comes back to personal relations in the end. If wealth and food serve the higher end of fostering interpersonal relations, so does information. Oddly enough, at least from a western point of view, Micronesians appear almost wantonly generous with wealth but extraordinarily guarded in dispensing information. This paradox can be traced back to the same foundational island value—the importance of preserving social relations. Island societies are personoriented , as we have repeatedly seen, and so a great deal of cultural practice reflects this basic orientation. Again and again this fundamental value surfaces in the different areas explored in this book. To be sure, information in its own right was a precious commodity in traditional times and was not dispensed carelessly. But information could also be dangerous insofar as it might hurt someone and cause a break in a personal relationship. Hence, it was doubly sacred and had to be meted out with great care. In my experience, islanders are very slow to say anything that might reflect badly on a third party, even in personal conversation. Part of the hesitation may stem from deference to the feelings of the person they are addressing. You can never be entirely certain, even in tight-knit island societies, whether the person you’re talking about is a friend or foe of your conversation partner. But another large part of 64 Chapter...