Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Losing Sociability

Modes of Human Behaviour

Every once in a while, I repost articles that I have written previously. Below is an emended article on courtesy (Oct 4, 2010), a subject, a way of life, a human behaviour that never loses its importance. Or shouldn't; not if we cherish civil society, and equally important if we value friendships.

Nothing is ever lost by courtesy. It is the cheapest of the pleasures, costs nothing and conveys much. It pleases him who gives and him who receives, and thus, like mercy, it is twice blessed. 
Erastus Wiman [1834-1904], Canadian journalist

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them. 
Francis Bacon [1561-1626], English philosopher & scientist.

One of the orphans of the electronic-communications age is courtesy. This is particular striking, given the various ways and modes of communication we have at our disposal today. Yet, in one of those paradoxes of modern life, communication technologies have become almost a means of closing or, at least, limiting intimate or close connections between people. Modern communication has become, in many ways, a device of exclusion. Such is one school of thought.

Towards that end, some persons respond to emails, phone calls, and letters only when it suits them. That could mean no response or one so delayed that it becomes essentially meaningless that it has no connection to the original communication. The problem with that line of selfish thought is that it negates the idea that another person took the time to write a note, a letter, or make a phone call.

Part of the problem stems from business practices that carry-over into the space of personal life, where individuals cannot make distinctions. The language of modern time-management language is prioritize and manage, giving its adherents an excuse, a way out, a line of defence for their blunders in etiquette. One of the arguments given is, "I do not have time to respond to each email or letter." If and when confronted by the hurt party, such persons, with a smile on their lips, always plead busyness, personal distractions or a technological glitch. In other words, all valid excuses for the modern man. It would be uncool, unwise for the sender of the long-unresponded missive to press the matter further; that would be a sign of immaturity, a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy for someone's inability to be courteous. There might me a scientific reason; there might be a genetic aberration in the prefrontal cortex of non-responders, one associated with personality traits.

Or it might be something more banal; the person you are contacting just doesn't like you or need your friendship. The silence is his poor and cowardly way of showing that. And that's the key. Importance is usually given to those types of personal correspondence that advances a career or public standing, or closely associated to such thinking, a non-response would hurt someone's standing. For example, a letter from an important or influential person. So, letters, electronic or otherwise, that a receiver finds a nuisance, or those that have no immediate benefit to career or public image are deleted or thrown in the trash. There is a word to describe such behaviour: rude.

This might sound counter-productive in an age of social networking, where people ardently use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter—chiefly for self-promotion, it seems—to build networks and community. But the modes of communications have changed. It is more fashionable to post on the wall in a group message than to speak personally, which has the limitation of reaching only one person at a time. Community for the most part is counted by the number of friends or connections you have, and not necessarily by the persons who are intimates or friends. That is in itself telling, it speaking in the language of marketing and public relations. Hardly a language of friendship and intimacy.

Even so, I have said in previous writings that I support the Internet, as it has done much good. To be sure, the Internet and its associated technologies have expanded the reach of individuals, and increased the access of information, previously limited to a few. (It has allowed blogs, like this one, to reach as many people who hold similar interests and views and who have access to a computer or mobile phone. 

The Internet, however, has shrunk time, and our ability to focus intently on one thing. The technology has changed the ways humans think, says Nicholas Carr in a 2008 article in The Atlantic Monthly ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?")
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.Undoubtedly so,
Perhaps so. Yet, what is often forgotten in the haste to clear your in-box, or voice-mail messages is that a real person took the time and effort to draft that letter or make that phone call. This is something I hasten to teach my children, namely, that the virtual world differs from the world of flesh and blood. (Personal disclosure: I attempt to respond to all emails, letters and phone calls within a day of receipt, often within the same day.) So, what does deleting that letter or throwing it in the trash say? Too much. 

The Specious Argument of Busyness

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United State, with child film star Shirley Temple in a July 1938 photo, once remarked: “As for accomplishments, I just did what I had to do as things came along.”

That argument of busyness, seemingly plausible and often used as a weapon of defence, has merit if you are a narcissistic and uncaring individual who forms superficial relationships, considering friends on social-media sites as genuine and deep. Without putting too fine a point to it, friendship takes time to nurture; consider yourself fortunate to have one or two long-term friendships. If we want to make real social connections, have enduring relationships and develop deep friendships, it takes time and a desire to invest in such relationships. 

If we want such deeply personal human contacts, we need to fight against that tendency of following the path of least resistance, and return to old-fashioned courtesy and consideration, which are the superiour values we hold as a society. That is how real friendships are nurtured. And that is how social skills are developed, by communicating individually and intimately.

I would like to draw your attention to—at least as courtesy is concerned—a period before modern communication technologies became ever-present, back to the late 1930s. Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the United States during the Great Depression, received an enormous amount of letters:
During her first year in the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt received 300,000 pieces of mail from adults and children. She continued to receive hundreds of thousands of letters in the years that followed.
The First Lady had a secretary who was in charge of the mail. Her secretary would read the mail and either reply to it or send it to another department for action. She would also select about 50 letters a day for Mrs. Roosevelt to read. The First Lady would sometime dictate replies to those letters.
The important point is that Mrs. Roosevelt, despite her importance and position, read 50 letters a day, and responded to some of them. The responses were by no means long, but a response was drafted and sent. Can you imagine that happening today? Can you imagine that an important and influential politician, businessperson, or celebrity responding to an average person, an average citizen? Yet courtesy has little to do with wealth or social status and everything to do with what in my time was called class. In fact, I have received responses from well-known individuals of high accomplishment who are very busy; and no responses from persons of mediocre or lesser talents. 

That in itself says much about the level of courtesy in today's society. I sense that rudeness, though not normative, is acceptable in some (many?) circles, given license and liberty in an age that gives little credence to traditional etiquette. That's a shame, since how and how quickly we communicate does matter. The intent here is not to act as a public scold, but to think, remind and reflect about the human condition and human dignity. As humans, we have the ability to change for the common good, but only if we deem values like courtesy as important. "Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy," Emerson said.