Of Many Things

Am I the only one bothered by the curt self-introductions that seem to have become the fashion among the young? “Hello, I’m George,” a perfect stranger will say as he takes a seat next to me at a soiree or other event. That’s it. As he sips his coffee or wine, I am left to wonder, “Oh, that’s nice, but who are you?”

When I turn to him quizzically, the game of “20 Questions” begins. What brings you here? Where are you from? Where do you work? What are your connections with anyone else in the room? With me, for instance?

I am unprepared for this, since I am a recent transplant from the Pacific, where I have spent over 40 years—most of my adult life. The islands on which I served—Chuuk and Pohnpei, which appear on the globe as two microdots, if they appear at all—are neighborly places that exude all the personal warmth and charm usually associated with the South Seas. (Think of Michener or Maugham and you get the idea.) People in the islands take social obligations—including meeting and greeting strangers—very seriously. That is why whenever I suffered through an abbreviated introduction by a young American back in the Pacific, I would turn to the islanders in the room and watch with amusement as their faces fell. While the visitor stood there with a sense of duty done, my island friends would desperately search for social cues that might allow them to connect with their new guest.

Islanders, even more than the rest of us, need a starting point to begin to establish the link between this stranger and themselves. They were all but begging him to help them plot him on their social map. Accept me for who I am, the American seemed to be insisting, as he offered his first name and stood pat.

Newcomers as much as anyone else have to be located on the social map somehow if islanders are to have any meaningful contact with them. Micronesians, like others, try to construct a social chain that links them to the person who just presented himself or herself in the office or on the phone. Those six degrees of relationship that supposedly connect an individual to just about anyone else in the world are essential in a society that is highly dependent on personal relationships.

I remember walking into a village on a distant island that I had never before visited and encountering a young man whom I had never met. When I told him that I was a Catholic priest working on Pohnpei, he blinked and his face remained unchanged. Only when I mentioned that I had once taught at Xavier High School did the networking begin, as we discovered that I had taught his wife’s father during my early years at the school. Once that link was made, I found myself on the social map, and he began retelling the horror stories, so often repeated by his in-laws, of the impossible demands I would make on students during the daily physical education class and how I would chase students around the field, driving them on whenever they fell behind in their laps. The bond between us was established then and there. After the laughter came an hour or two of satisfying talk on other things.

Pacific Islanders or Americans, we all require an identity if we are to connect. A face and a first name are just not enough. So give us something to work with, George. Let us go about the business of trying to figure out common ties: six links is all we need before we have you in our sights. Do us the courtesy of at least making an effort to help us pin you on our social map. The pin won’t hurt and the position on our map won’t confine you in any way. An introduction, after all, is precisely that—just a beginning. Who knows, good conversation and even friendship may follow.

6 years 2 months ago
Thank you for your humanizing reflections based on your Micronesian experiences.  We have a number of Micronesian people in our small parish, as well as people from 20 other nations.  I constantly learn from them the importance of relationships in our hurry- up and move-on world.
6 years 2 months ago
We are a relational specie after all.  It's when we ignore this fact that we get into trouble!
David Smith
6 years 2 months ago
I suppose most Westerners don't want to be well known.  We're a society that values casual commitment.  Anything deeper might anchor us, if only for a minute, and keep us from flitting from flower to flower.

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