Tattoo Etiquette

Tattoo_EthicsLet’s talk about tattoos in terms of Descriptive Ethics vs Prescriptive ethics. As of October 31, 2015 I explore what people do (descriptive ethics) and my poll here shows more than 50% of my readers do not hesitate to ask about another person’s interesting tattoos. Mind you, the sample size was only 13, but it is a beginning.

So that was descriptive ethics: the “WHAT DO” people do?” question — the observational question.  But what about the prescriptive or normative ethical question: “WHAT SHOULD people do?”.  Is there a proper tattoo etiquette?

Should a person who is pleasantly curious about another person’s visible tattoo avoid inquiring about the tattoo?

Indeed about 30% of my readers would probably not ask about another person’s tattoos.  But why is that?  Here are their most common replies:

  1. It would be rude to intrude on the other person’s privacy.
  2. I may offend someone by asking — I am being thoughtful.
  3. I am shy.

Answers #1 and #2 are moral/ethical replies.  Those people are telling us what the right thing to do is.  They know the correct tattoo etiquette. But in fact, #3 is probably the accurate answer for most of these people while answers #1 and #2 are just rationalizations (valorizations) around the person’s temperament.

If you are one of those people, and you doubt me, let me add this piece of data.
Playing an unabashed amateur scientist, I recently interviewed 8 people with visible tattoos asking the following three questions:

  1. If someone is polite, do you mind them asking you about your visible tattoos?
  2. What situations do you dislike being asked about your tattoos?
  3. How often do you ask other people about their visible tattoos?

The answers were enlightening:

Question 1: Everyone emphatically said they essentially NEVER mind anyone asking them about their tattoos if done politely.

Question 2: Everyone said they only disliked condemning inquiries. (“Why do you have that stupid tattoo” …)

Question 3: 1/3 of the folks I interviewed agreed with my readers that they probably would not ask while the other 2/3 said they usually ask.  When the first group was asked “Why won’t you ask other folks about their tattoos if you don’t mind folks asking about yours?”  And each and everyone of them said, “Because of my personality – I’m a bit shy.”

So you see, people with visible tattoos know why they don’t ask. They don’t turn their temperament into a ethical/moral declaration.

Conclusions:

  • The stories we tell ourselves and others to explain our behavior are often post-hoc glorious rationalizations for our temperaments.  And usually, we don’t know we are doing that.
  • Ethical and moral claims are often disguised projections of the temperaments of others.

3 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

3 responses to “Tattoo Etiquette

  1. Interesting. Do we know the converse? How many non-hesitant but curious people (non-shy people) would refrain if we GAVE them a reasonable rationale (ethical valuation) for not doing so? Your last bullet bears on this but seems ambiguous to me.

  2. @ egyoung,

    Good question, but let me be sure I understand you:

    If I did my interviews and discovered that almost everyone with a visible tattoo resented being asked about their tattoos (even if politely), would I change my approach. The answer is certainly! But I am not sure even that data would stop other out-going, non-shy people like me.

    But, maybe you are asking another question: Can a society successfully build moral sanctions that tell its members that asking about tattoos is wrong, even though most people don’t mind being asked. In that case, the answer is “Sure, they could build it and it may stop some people, but not all, of course.” It would be like the god-rule that says you should not have sex with your neighbor’s wife/husband. It may deter but not stop because lots of neighbors still desire it.

  3. @sabio
    Can a society successfully build moral sanctions that tell its members that asking about tattoos is wrong, even though most people don’t mind being asked. In that case, the answer is “Sure, they could build it and it may stop some people, but not all, of course.” It would be like the god-rule that says you should not have sex with your neighbor’s wife/husband. It may deter but not stop because lots of neighbors still desire it.

    This would be a scary society. But, in some sense, various societies do have such restrictions and people accept them tacitly. There are many things we’re not allowed to talk about, depending on where we live, what our status is, and what time period we live in.

    Regarding tattoos, I’m surely you know that, in Japan, tattoos are not seen as a nice thing. I was told that people with tattoos may be refused entry in shared baths. On the contrary, in the US, I hear, one out of five people have a tattoo and in Sweden the fraction is higher. And, yes, one is not allowed to ask the meaning of a tattoo, unless one is a common friend of the person having it. I suspect that there are many people who have tattoos for which they later regret. Yes, you wouldn’t want to ask someone, who Jimmy is when Jimmy is an ex-boy friend whose name appears on a woman’s arm in indelible ink. (But you don’t know this before you ask.)

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