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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 33)

2006-07-09 20:32

  CHAPTER    33 - The Introducer

  WE all suffer more or less from the perennial “freshness” of certain  acquaintances - tiresome people whom a misguided Providence has  endowed with over-flowing vitality and an irrepressible love of their  fellowmen, and who, not content with looking on life as a continual  “spree,” insist on making others happy in spite of themselves.

  Their name  is legion and their presence ubiquitous, but they rarely annoy as much as  when disguised under the mask of the “Introducer.” In his clutches one is  helpless. It is impossible to escape from such philanthropic tyranny. He, in  his freshness, imagines that to present human beings to each other is his  mission in this world and moves through life making these platonic unions,  oblivious, as are other match-makers, of the misery he creates.

  If you are out for a quiet stroll, one of these genial gentlemen is sure to  come bounding up, and without notice or warning present you to his  “friend,” - the greater part of the time a man he has met only an hour  before, but whom he endows out of the warehouse of his generous  imagination with several talents and all the virtues. In order to make the  situation just one shade more uncomfortable, this kindly bore proceeds to  sing a hymn of praise concerning both of you to your faces, adding, in  order that you may both feel quite friendly and pleasant:

  “I know you two will fancy each other, you are so alike,” - a phrase  neatly calculated to nip any conversation in the bud. You detest the  unoffending stranger on the spot and would like to kill the bore. Not to  appear an absolute brute you struggle through some commonplace phrases,  discovering the while that your new acquaintance is no more anxious to  know you, than you are to meet him; that he has not the slightest idea who  you are, neither does he desire to find out. He classes you with the bore,  and his one idea, like your own, is to escape. So that the only result of the  Introducer's good-natured interference has been to make two fellow- creatures miserable.

  A friend was telling me the other day of the martyrdom he had  suffered from this class. He spoke with much feeling, as he is the soul of  amiability, but somewhat short-sighted and afflicted with a hopelessly bad memory for faces. For the last few years, he has been in the habit of  spending one or two of the winter months in Washington, where his  friends put him up at one club or another.

  Each winter on his first  appearance at one of these clubs, some kindly disposed old fogy is sure to  present him to a circle of the members, and he finds himself  indiscriminately shaking hands with Judges and Colonels. As little or no  conversation follows these introductions to fix the individuality of the  members in his mind, he unconsciously cuts two-thirds of his newly  acquired circle the next afternoon, and the following winter, after a ten- months' absence, he innocently ignores the other third. So hopelessly has  he offended in this way, that last season, on being presented to a club  member, the latter peevishly blurted out:

  “This is the fourth time I have been introduced to Mr. Blank, but he  never remembers me,” and glared coldly at him, laying it all down to my  friend's snobbishness and to the airs of a New Yorker when away from  home. If instead of being sacrificed to the introducer's mistaken zeal my  poor friend had been left quietly to himself, he would in good time have  met the people congenial to him and avoided giving offence to a number  of kindly gentlemen.

  This introducing mania takes an even more aggressive form in the  hostess, who imagines that she is lacking in hospitality if any two people  in her drawing-room are not made known to each other. No matter how  interested you may be in a chat with a friend, you will see her bearing  down upon you, bringing in tow the one human being you have carefully  avoided for years.

  Escape seems impossible, but as a forlorn hope you  fling yourself into conversation with your nearest neighbor, trying by your  absorbed manner to ward off the calamity. In vain! With a tap on your  elbow your smiling hostess introduces you and, having spoiled your  afternoon, flits off in search of other prey.

  The question of introductions is one on which it is impossible to lay  down any fixed rules. There must constantly occur situations where one's  acts must depend upon a kindly consideration for other people's feelings,  which after all, is only another name for tact. Nothing so plainly shows the  breeding of a man or woman as skill in solving problems of this kind without giving offence.

  Foreigners, with their greater knowledge of the world, rarely fall into  the error of indiscriminate introducing, appreciating what a presentation  means and what obligations it entails. The English fall into exactly the  contrary error from ours, and carry it to absurd lengths. Starting with the  assumption that everybody knows everybody, and being aware of the  general dread of meeting “detrimentals,” they avoid the difficulty by  making no introductions. This may work well among themselves, but it is  trying to a stranger whom they have been good enough to ask to their  tables, to sit out the meal between two people who ignore his presence and  converse across him; for an Englishman will expire sooner than speak to a  person to whom he has not been introduced.

  The French, with the marvellous tact that has for centuries made them  the law-givers on all subjects of etiquette and breeding, have another way  of avoiding useless introductions. They assume that two people meeting in  a drawing-room belong to the same world and so chat pleasantly with  those around them. On leaving the SALON the acquaintance is supposed  to end, and a gentleman who should at another time or place bow or speak  to the lady who had offered him a cup of tea and talked pleasantly to him  over it at a friend's reception, would commit a gross breach of etiquette.

  I was once present at a large dinner given in Cologne to the American  Geographical Society. No sooner was I seated than my two neighbors  turned towards me mentioning their names and waiting for me to do the  same. After that the conversation flowed on as among friends. This custom  struck me as exceedingly well-bred and calculated to make a foreigner feel  at his ease.

  Among other curious types, there are people so constituted that they  are unhappy if a single person can be found in the room to whom they  have not been introduced. It does not matter who the stranger may be or  what chance there is of finding him congenial. They must be presented;  nothing else will content them. If you are chatting with a friend you feel a  pull at your sleeve, and in an audible aside, they ask for an introduction.  The aspirant will then bring up and present the members of his family who  happen to be near. After that he seems to be at ease, and having absolutely nothing to say will soon drift off. Our public men suffer terribly from  promiscuous introductions; it is a part of a political career; a good memory  for names and faces and a cordial manner under fire have often gone a  long way in floating a statesman on to success.

  Demand, we are told, creates supply. During a short stay in a Florida  hotel last winter, I noticed a curious little man who looked like a cross  between a waiter and a musician. As he spoke to me several times and  seemed very officious, I asked who he was. The answer was so grotesque  that I could not believe my ears. I was told that he held the position of  official “introducer,” or master of ceremonies, and that the guests under his  guidance became known to each other, danced, rode, and married to their  own and doubtless to his satisfaction.

  The further west one goes the more  pronounced this mania becomes. Everybody is introduced to everybody on  all imaginable occasions. If a man asks you to take a drink, he presents  you to the bar-tender. If he takes you for a drive, the cab-driver is  introduced. “Boots” makes you acquainted with the chambermaid, and the  hotel proprietor unites you in the bonds of friendship with the clerk at the  desk. Intercourse with one's fellows becomes one long debauch of  introduction. In this country where every liberty is respected, it is a  curious fact that we should be denied the most important of all rights, that  of choosing our acquaintances.

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