Blog: The case against social obligations

As Ramadan approaches each year, I begin to get nervous about a phenomenon that is as characteristic to the holy month as soap-watching marathons have become: countless social events that are difficult to navigate and impossible to avoid.

The Ramadan Iftars that I endure every year at relatives’ or family friends’ homes, whom I only meet in similarly forced social occasions, have a set protocol. People arrive with overpriced desserts, a call to prayer signals that the time has come to eat, guests approach the table timidly and the host goes on a desperate quest to get them to have more food, willing to using violence if necessary. Afterward comes the most painful stage: Attempts at socialization between a group of people only tied together by an overlap in social agendas.

I was never too keen on social obligations, and have always been awestruck by people who reliably show up to every single social event they’re invited to, adopting the requisite mood to fit the ocassion, be it it festive, happy or sad. I always wondered how they were never inspired to find more useful and enjoyable ways to spend their time.

To clarify, I’m not advocating for complete social isolation, or the end of social get-togethers, particularly around an occasion like Ramadan. I’m all for going to social events where an actual relationship between guests and hosts exists, or at least ones in which, as a guest, you know that your presence will make a difference. My issue is with social obligations that are of no benefit to anyone, and only serve the purpose of maintaining appearances and upholding archaic social rules.

As a long-time sufferer of these social encounters, I will attempt to break down the discrepancy between what these social functions intend to do and what they actually consist of and have become as a result.

Your presence doesn’t count

From childhood and up until my teenage years, I remember attending weddings where I wasn’t sure whether I had been invited because my family knows the bride or the groom, and where I didn’t even know either of their names. The scars of unbearable boredom that these events left are undoubtedly the source of my strong present-day hatred of unnecessary social courtesies. It may be normal for kids to accompany their parents to events that don’t directly concern them; however, as a byproduct of the exaggerated attachment of Egyptians to their social and familial relationships (as is the case in many cultures in the world), most families expect this tagging along to continue indefinitely, demanding their kids — and others who they have come to consider part of their social entourage — to attend events just so they can make rounds across a room and be introduced to people who would have been just fine without making their very brief acquaintance.

Your presence heavily counts

Sometimes I feel that abiding by these social rituals has grown into a monstrous phenomenon of its own, which has become divorced from and contradictory to the original purpose of these occasions: to support people in tough times or share happiness with them. I recently attended the various social rituals that follow the death of a relative, and was mainly overcome by sympathy for the family of the deceased for what those paying their condolences were putting them through.

The house of the mourning family was opened to receive condolences from people for two straight days, starting just a few hours after the death and continued into late hours of the night. On the third day, the closest people to the deceased relative stood at the mosque to receive condolences for four hours before they could finally come home to some rest and privacy. They only had the space to grieve and process the loss of their loved one three days after their death.

Throughout, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was this prolonged series of social rituals really the best way to honor the person who passed and support their kin? And have those who volunteered their presence actually thought about what would be the best to support them before camping out at the house for two days? Or has fulfilling any perfunctory social obligation to the tee attained some kind of value in and of itself, one that surpasses the wellbeing of those concerned?

An endless cycle of both

Some events have become a matter of social debts that need to be repaid. People feel obligated to attend an event that they’re not interested in just because they received an invitation, and subsequently feel obligated to return the gesture by inviting them to their next event, so the two groups enter cycle of reciprocal social obligations. I wonder how much merrier weddings would be if attendees were limited to those who are genuinely happy for the couple and want to join their celebration? And how much money, time and effort would be saved if we used a little bit common sense in how we approach social events?

I think it’s perfectly fine for people to spend some of their time and energy just to make others happy, but the benefits involved should at least be proportionate to the sacrifice.

Since social events tend to leave me drained, I have come up with an equation that helps me decide whether or not to attend an event I don’t feel like going to. On the one hand, I weigh the extent to which I don’t want to go and the amount of effort that the process of going would entail; on the other, I take into account my relationship to the person and how much of a difference my presence would actually make for them. If the first hand wins, I skip the occasion, guilt-free. In this way, I can avoid constantly sidelining my priorities, which — given the sheer number of social events a typical Egyptian must contend with — can accumulatively have a severe impact on my life, for things that won’t do much for anyone.

I realize social obligations are cemented in a culture that has been passed on for generations, and I acknowledge the good they can produce when experienced in moderation, but I feel that mindlessly clinging to a lifestyle that contradicts its original intention ends up replacing deep connections and genuine exchanges in relationships with hollow gestures. Just thinking about the term “social obligations” is enough to realize that something with that descriptor can never maintain the joy it desires to produce.