Social Suggestion by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The question of how far we are unconsciously influenced by people and surroundings, in our likes and dislikes, our opinions, and even in our pleasures and intimate tastes, is a delicate and interesting one, for the line between success and failure in the world, as on the stage or in most of the professions, is so narrow and depends so often on what humor one’s “public” happen to be in at a particular moment, that the subject is worthy of consideration.

Has it never happened to you, for instance, to dine with friends and go afterwards in a jolly humor to the play which proved so delightful that you insist on taking your family immediately to see it; when to your astonishment you discover that it is neither clever nor amusing, on the contrary rather dull. Your family look at you in amazement and wonder what you had seen to admire in such an asinine performance. There was a case of suggestion! You had been influenced by your friends and had shared their opinions. The same thing occurs on a higher scale when one is raised out of one’s self by association with gifted and original people, a communion with more cultivated natures which causes you to discover and appreciate a thousand hidden beauties in literature, art or music that left to yourself, you would have failed to notice. Under these circumstances you will often be astonished at the point and piquancy of your own conversation. This is but too true of a number of subjects.

We fondly believe our opinions and convictions to be original, and with innocent conceit, imagine that we have formed them for ourselves. The illusion of being unlike other people is a common vanity. Beware of the man who asserts such a claim. He is sure to be a bore and will serve up to you, as his own, a muddle of ideas and opinions which he has absorbed like a sponge from his surroundings.

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No place is more propitious for studying this curious phenomenon, than behind the scenes of a theatre, the last few nights before a first performance. The whole company is keyed up to a point of mutual admiration that they are far from feeling generally. “The piece is charming and sure to be a success.” The author and the interpreters of his thoughts are in complete communion. The first night comes. The piece is a failure! Drop into the greenroom then and you will find an astonishing change has taken place. The Star will take you into a corner and assert that, she “always knew the thing could not go, it was too imbecile, with such a company, it was folly to expect anything else.” The author will abuse the Star and the management. The whole troupe is frankly disconcerted, like people aroused out of a hypnotic sleep, wondering what they had seen in the play to admire.

In the social world we are even more inconsistent, accepting with tameness the most astonishing theories and opinions. Whole circles will go on assuring each other how clever Miss So-and-So is, or, how beautiful they think someone else. Not because these good people are any cleverer, or more attractive than their neighbors, but simply because it is in the air to have these opinions about them. To such an extent does this hold good, that certain persons are privileged to be vulgar and rude, to say impertinent things and make remarks that would ostracize a less fortunate individual from the polite world for ever; society will only smilingly shrug its shoulders and say: “It is only Mr. So-and-So’s way.” It is useless to assert that in cases like these, people are in possession of their normal senses. They are under influences of which they are perfectly unconscious.

Have you ever seen a piece guyed? Few sadder sights exist, the human being rarely getting nearer the brute than when engaged in this amusement. Nothing the actor or actress can do will satisfy the public. Men who under ordinary circumstances would be incapable of insulting a woman, will whistle and stamp and laugh, at an unfortunate girl who is doing her utmost to amuse them. A terrible example of this was given two winters ago at one of our concert halls, when a family of Western singers were subjected to absolute ill-treatment at the hands of the public. The young girls were perfectly sincere, in their rude way, but this did not prevent men from offering them every insult malice could devise, and making them a target for every missile at hand. So little does the public think for itself in cases like this, that at the opening of the performance had some well-known person given the signal for applause, the whole audience would, in all probability, have been delighted and made the wretched sisters a success.

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In my youth it was the fashion to affect admiration for the Italian school of painting and especially for the great masters of the Renaissance. Whole families of perfectly inartistic English and Americans might then he heard conscientiously admiring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Leonardo’s Last Supper (Botticelli had not been invented then) in the choicest guide-book language.

When one considers the infinite knowledge of technique required to understand the difficulties overcome by the giants of the Renaissance and to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of their creations, one asks one’s self in wonder what our parents admired in those paintings, and what tempted them to bring home and adorn their houses with such dreadful copies of their favorites. For if they appreciated the originals they never would have bought the copies, and if the copies pleased them, they must have been incapable of enjoying the originals. Yet all these people thought themselves perfectly sincere. To-day you will see the same thing going on before the paintings of Claude Monet and Besnard, the same admiration expressed by people who, you feel perfectly sure, do not realize why these works of art are superior and can no more explain to you why they think as they do than the sheep that follow each other through a hole in a wall, can give a reason for their actions.

Dress and fashion in clothes are subjects above all others, where the ineptitude of the human mind is most evident. Can it be explained in any other way, why the fashions of yesterday always appear so hideous to us,–almost grotesque? Take up an old album of photographs and glance over the faded contents. Was there ever anything so absurd? Look at the top hats men wore, and at the skirts of the women!

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The mother of a family said to me the other day: “When I recall the way in which girls were dressed in my youth, I wonder how any of us ever got a husband.”

Study a photograph of the Empress Eugenie, that supreme arbiter of elegance and grace. Oh! those bunchy hooped skirts! That awful India shawl pinned off the shoulders, and the bonnet perched on a roll of hair in the nape of the neck! What were people thinking of at that time? Were they lunatics to deform in this way the beautiful lines of the human body which it should be the first object of toilet to enhance, or were they only lacking in the artistic sense? Nothing of the kind. And what is more, they were convinced that the real secret of beauty in dress had been discovered by them; that past fashions were absurd, and that the future could not improve on their creations. The sculptors and painters of that day (men of as great talent as any now living), were enthusiastic in reproducing those monstrosities in marble or on canvas, and authors raved about the ideal grace with which a certain beauty draped her shawl.

Another marked manner in which we are influenced by circumambient suggestion, is in the transient furore certain games and pastimes create. We see intelligent people so given over to this influence as barely to allow themselves time to eat and sleep, begrudging the hours thus stolen from their favorite amusement.

Ten years ago, tennis occupied every moment of our young people’s time; now golf has transplanted tennis in public favor, which does not prove, however, that the latter is the better game, but simply that compelled by the accumulated force of other people’s opinions, youths and maidens, old duffers and mature spinsters are willing to pass many hours daily in all kinds of weather, solemnly following an indian-rubber ball across ten- acre lots.

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If you suggest to people who are laboring under the illusion they are amusing themselves that the game, absorbing so much of their attention, is not as exciting as tennis nor as clever in combinations as croquet, that in fact it would be quite as amusing to roll an empty barrel several times around a plowed field, they laugh at you in derision and instantly put you down in their profound minds as a man who does not understand “sport.”

Yet these very people were tennis-mad twenty years ago and had night come to interrupt a game of croquet would have ordered lanterns lighted in order to finish the match so enthralling were its intricacies.

Everybody has known how to play Bezique in this country for years, yet within the last eighteen months, whole circles of our friends have been seized with a midsummer madness and willingly sat glued to a card-table through long hot afternoons and again after dinner until day dawned on their folly.

Certain Memoires of Louis Fifteenth’s reign tell of an “unravelling” mania that developed at his court. It began by some people fraying out old silks to obtain the gold and silver threads from worn-out stuffs; this occupation soon became the rage, nothing could restrain the delirium of destruction, great ladies tore priceless tapestries from their walls and brocades from their furniture, in order to unravel those materials and as the old stock did not suffice for the demand thousands were spent on new brocades and velvets, which were instantly destroyed, entertainments were given where unravelling was the only amusement offered, the entire court thinking and talking of nothing else for months.

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What is the logical deduction to be drawn from all this? Simply that people do not see with their eyes or judge with their understandings; that an all-pervading hypnotism, an ambient suggestion, at times envelops us taking from people all free will, and replacing it with the taste and judgment of the moment.

The number of people is small in each generation, who are strong enough to rise above their surroundings and think for themselves. The rest are as dry leaves on a stream. They float along and turn gayly in the eddies, convinced all the time (as perhaps are the leaves) that they act entirely from their own volition and that their movements are having a profound influence on the direction and force of the current.

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