Familiarity breeds contempt – Or does it?
Posted on November 29th, 2010

Dr. Tilak Fernando

Our personal beliefs certainly control our lives. Psychological pundits would advise that we can change our attitudes so as to change our life if we want a better reality by developing healthier principles. The problem here is how to recognize a disempowering conviction that needs changing which will affect us.

In the distant past Colonial rulers kept our local folk at a distance, possibly to avoid becoming too familiar with them. Suddas, with their “ƒ”¹…”superiority complex’, thought “Hell is other people”. In a slightly different manner to what Benjamin Franklin used to say “Fish and visitors smell in three days”, Colonial Sahibs used to think and consider the locals as an utterly inferior lot smelling during 364 days!

Local fashion

We have heard when a Sahib walked on the road how the local man had to get to a side, remove his shawl from his shoulder, bend into two and pay respect to the master while the pokerfaced fellow kept his chin up and passed as if he had descended from heaven!

When the country attained independence that “ƒ”¹…”grandeur’ was passed onto our local Suddas of the elite kind who did their morning “ƒ”¹…”walkout’ on horseback where the local man not only had to get to a side but virtually dig into the nearest drain to pay respect in a similar fashion! Even at their residences domestics were treated in a similar Sahib and local fashion, from the way they addressed and treated each other.

Similar to a Victorian pattern of “ƒ”¹…”Upstairs’ and “ƒ”¹…”Downstairs’ in Britain, servants were not allowed beyond the kitchen door, except the butler or the senior domestic approaching the masters to communicate on their behalf and vice versa. “ƒ”¹…”Servants’ had to eat different kind of food from their masters, sleep on mats on the floor in any corner while the masters enjoyed spring-loaded mattresses and all the luxuries.

Regrettably this kind of behaviour becoming infectious, over the years, has seemingly crept into the middle classes as well.

Middle class family

The reason for such discrimination or alienating them socially was perhaps the masters were concerned and afraid of a robust psychological finding that “ƒ”¹…”over-exposure to someone causes too much of familiarity and would breed contempt’. Once they perceived dissimilarity, it’s all downhill from there and even traits they might have liked, or been neutral about before, then got the thumbs down’!

Down the line, over the years, Sri Lankan Society has been metamorphosing at rocket speed. This reminds me of a college mate in my junior school, from a middle class family, who shuddered at the thought of having to wear a sarong for the rest of his life if he were to fail his SSC (Senior School Certificate) examination! During that era people were conditioned to think that anyone who was deficient in English could not wear the European attire! He simply shuddered with fear that he might become a social outcaste!

Lot of water has flowed under the bridge since and the society has “ƒ”¹…”come down to earth’ and begun to treat each other as human beings with compassion and tolerance.

Consequently, many social barriers have been slackened with the result that today it is hard to distinguish a manual worker or a coconut plucker from the “ƒ”¹…”gentleman type’, as both wear the same outfit (long pants), which is worthy in terms of human equality. But the problem tends to crop up when the master considers his servant as a human being while the servant, contrary to master’s kindness, misconstrues it as a weakness and tries to be too familiar which can cause embarrassment at specific incidences.

I have heard friends mourning about their domestics who were made comfortable with separate rooms, beds, mattresses, fans and laundered bed sheets regularly and treated compassionately, but on the part of the domestics who were naive to appreciate such humane deeds had made life difficult for both parties and “ƒ”¹…”familiarity’ certainly had brought about contempt making the associations vinegary.

To illustrate a marked change in our present society (not as a contempt), everyone calls the other as “ƒ”¹…”Aiya’ (brother) “ƒ”¹…”Akka’ (sister) “ƒ”¹…”Uncle’, “ƒ”¹…”Anty’ (aunt) etc. which can give the wrong signal to some who would take it as an offence rather than a gesture, which automatically can lead to prejudice and contempt in one’s mind.

Humane deeds

Once I was on a Gulf Air flight from London, via Dubai, to Colombo when towards the end of the journey boarding cards were distributed to all passengers. Many Sri Lankan workers from Dubai who were unable to fill the form in English sought help from neighbouring passengers. One chap approached a Sri Lankan gentleman, who was seated next to me, to seek his assistance.

During the flight I gathered he had been a Sergeant attached to the British Royal Air Force (voluntary service): “Uncle meka mata puravala denawada karunakarala” (Can you please fill this form to me?). The passenger requested. The gentleman’s reflex action was instant and he barked back saying:

“Kohomada oyi mama thamusege uncle une? (How did I become your uncle men?). The greeting that followed from the passenger was uncalled for and rather abrasive and embarrassing.

Humanitarian

On a different situation, I have a friend, a homoeopath, who is practical in treating the poor free of charge and his clinic is always full.

I would call him an “ƒ”¹…”A’ grade humanitarian who brushes aside any disparity among people and does not get offended either by patients getting too companionable with him at times.

However, one is inclined to think that he could be accommodating such “ƒ”¹…”intolerable’ demeanour at times willingly or unenthusiastically but to an outsider, some of the behavioural patterns of a few women make one wonder whether such patients are really testing his patience and exploiting his tolerance! In any other doctor’s surgery, I am certain such conduct would be treated as totally contemptuous.

A friend who is an affluent housewife in Colombo poses a vital question: “Am I to treat workers and get done, or am I to be “ƒ”¹…”ruthless’ and “ƒ”¹…”insensitive’ and get the work done?”

We live in amazing times. In fact, life is a university. The greatest trap is that one can remain a perpetual student and never move beyond mental competence and take some real action for real results.

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29 .11.2010

Feeble foundations cause structural cracks

In Focus – November 15, 2010:

First of all I should like to take this opportunity to thank you, as a reader of your journal, like Dr Ajith Perera, for giving us the opportunity of not only educating but also entertaining ourselves with the valuable subjects touched upon by Dr Tilak S Fernando in his weekly column – In Focus.

It is a great pleasure reading such articles, on a Monday morning, which are well written: grammatically accurate with appropriate syntax, to the point and complete with fact rather than fiction.

It is no exaggeration to say that we readers do not get the chance these days to read and enjoy the type of articles such as those authored and presented by Dr Fernando. We owe our sincere thanks to him and it is our personal belief that you would retain his services and continue to provide readers the benefit of reading his column for many more months to come.

Regarding the above-mentioned article, I wish to add a few points which we consider are also important as those illustrated by Dr Fernando;

2 Responses to “Familiarity breeds contempt – Or does it?”

  1. Naram Says:

    Dr Fernando bringsout a whole host of pointsin this short article. In the past we Sri Lankans valued everything European – Arts, the Sciences and in the case of Western Province the Religion too. Now we see more of the down side and the contradictions. Certinly great Architecture, Arts and Music did not convey to us some of the brute facts inside those societies which in turn came to us but the theclasso fo people who were close to the colonial masters were largelyun aware of Wellassa events. Actually the all enveloping monolythic religions that made burning people alive a commonplace activity in Europe – pracitices that were exported torest of the world and continues under different terms, patents act, religious edicts on the use of contraceptives, loan systems planned to increase the wealth of the fewer and fewer at the cost of the many.

    Sciences are great – but with that comes the responsibility to keep the climate and the biosphere. ONe can only guess what a struggle few had to fight to keep Luxapana a public utility, not one owned by a Western company. How in the old days little knowledge was used to kill many outsideof prime cities off the educations streams is legendary.

    This ‘Kohomada Oi’ gent is a true replica of that colonial slave trader of the bygone age. One must remember that slave trade and slave plantations went on in Asia and Africa with many ‘Kohomada Oi’ gents making vest fortunesfrom the practice. TOdays migrant work force to the Middle East is the new variant of that old business.

    Sri Lankans should read European texts like John Foxe’s Story of Matyrs – John Lothrop Motley’s the Rise of the Dutch REpublic how Chistian / Catholic officialdom instigated practices like burning people alive for reading the Bible in English, or tried to think for themselves -prac in the 16 th century if more erudite works of Marx and ENgels are beyond understanding of most.

    It took a great time for me realise thar Buddha advised in the Kalama Sutta is still ahead of today..

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    How to behave & speak in Lankan Society, generally speaking, should be brought out in a little handbook to be used in schools and workplaces. Instead of using the over familiar terms of Uncle, Anty, Oi, Mae Oya, etc. can’t we simply say “karunakara mata udaw karanna puluwande ?” (can you help me please ?) and a nice smile to accompany it, with “Sthute”
    (thank you), would be far more acceptable to many people, whatever station in life.
    Also, Lankans must realise that having live in ‘servants’ vanished from western society over a hundred years ago. L.M.Montgomery, the author of “Anne of Green Gables states in her autobiography that she was shocked and ashamed that one of her female relatives went into ‘service’ to work as a servant in America. This was over a hundred years ago. Montgomery lived in Canada.
    It would be nice if there were enough cookers, fridges & washing machines in Lanka, to be installed into each household, so that the need for “live in servants” becomes less & less. Daily helpers, if needed, could come and leave in the evening – this would help raise the status of women home workers in Lanka.
    As for working as maids in the Mid East, people go there of their own free will, sometimes over and over again, as the money is good. Lanka should train women to go out as nurses & attendants rather than as maids.

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