The Murderer is Behind You! Serving You Tea!

I mention in a prior post the underlying assumptions of a culture--the questions that don't get asked. I close with a reference to making assumptions about servants.

Agatha Christie made a living out of the failure of people to notice servants. Of course, that was rather the point of servants, at least in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Darcy (from the early 1800s) could know all his servants' names and still feel an inherent superiority to them. But later English aristocrats and gentry-folk were more self-conscious. Servants were supposed to be seen and not heard, all to preserve the superiority of class.

Consequently, Christie was able to get her detectives to (correctly) argue in several short stories and novels that a murderer in servant dress can slip in and out of places easily without being noticed, precisely because the surrounding witnesses don't register "murderer" or "visitor" or even "person." They don't register the individual as someone specific at all.

I would love to now be able to argue that this is a product of class prejudice but according to current research, human beings are impressively horrible at recognizing their surroundings. It goes back to the gorilla costume video, which I never really believed in until I showed it to my students.

Another study had participants stop to talk to a tourist in need of directions; the participants were temporary distracted; when they turned back, a large percentage never realized that the tourist had changed to a different person.

Some people noticed, of course, but a substantial portion didn't (the percentage of recognition increased if the tourist changed sex or race--but still not to 100%).

This gets some social psychologists all bent out of shape ("Why didn't New Yorkers notice the world-class violinist playing in the subway?!!!!") I think all this angst is silly. The brain has to winnow out information to survive. We can't notice everything about everyone and everything all the time. That would make us crazy.

Of course, on the other hand, all that winnowing makes us rather susceptible to grifters and murderers--at least Agatha Christie murderers.


FreeLiveFree said...

There is also G. K. Chesterton's The Invisible Man (not to confuse with H.G. Wells novel of the same name or Ralph Ellison's) which relies on this trope.

Joe said...

"Why didn't New Yorkers notice the world-class violinist playing in the subway?!!!!"

Considering all the weirdos on New York subways, why would someone "notice" a violinist? Besides, the point of the subway is to get somewhere, not be entertained. (Might I also suggest that a) most people noticed the violinist, but didn't care and that b) some people did more than just notice the violinist, but they weren't the "right kind" of people.)

I do think that you can't reject class consciousness in regards to noticing servants. Unless there is something particularly noteworthy about one--such as being remarkably beautiful or handsome and/or having some deformity--I doubt most "masters" would be able to identify the house servants in a line-up.