by Quin Hillyer
So I asked my wife what she would write about if she were to comment on today’s culture. Asking her was, if I do say so, a brilliant idea. She had far more insightful things to say than I usually do.
She began by lamenting how modern technology has led to the decline of manners not just in social relations, but particularly in business interactions. People don’t actually talk to each other anymore, she said, and they don’t observe what should be the most common of courtesies: addressing each other by name, directing requests or thoughts clearly and directly to a particular person, or a myriad of other small, once-ordinary actions that aren’t mere niceties (although there’s nothing wrong with “mere niceties”) but also important for the practicalities of organizational efficiency and clear lines of authority.
E-mail, she said, quite rightly, is the culprit, or at least one major culprit. It’s so easy, without even rising from one’s desk, to shoot an e-mail to multiple people at once, or forward a whole e-conversation to multiple people – without more than a few words, not even a whole sentence, of explanation, or any clear direction as to whom is being addressed and whom is being asked to do something. It’s as if there’s an assumption that each recipient will read through the string of e-mails and find some mention, somewhere, of some task or duty that particularly pertains to him or her. No acknowledgement of receipt or understanding is requested; no “pleases” or “thank yous” in any way offered.
And even one-person to one-person e-mails often are launched without salutation, without full sentences (or even full words), and without any sense of the personal whatsoever. As in: Subject Line: “Need info.” Full text of message: “Acme account ovRdu. You got the #s?”
What’s worse is that sometimes, some workers absolutely refuse to look at their colleagues or to use their vocal chords at all. In a Washington newsroom a few years back I sometimes had the experience of asking interns for information while I hurried to finish an editorial. “Hey, Joe,” I’d say, “I need a favor, please, to find this info to fill in some blanks; when you get it, please speak up; don’t just e-mail it: I’m on a deadline.”
An hour would pass. I’d look right across, 15 feet away, to the intern at his desk. “Hey, were you able to find that info?” No word. Joe (a fictional name) wouldn’t even speak up then, but just point first to his computer and then to mine. He had emailed it 45 minutes ago. And it was the wrong thing entirely, so I was now an hour closer to deadline without crucial material at hand.
This sort of thing happened multiple times, with multiple young staffers. It’s as if nothing is real except the silent, electronic medium. Actual human interaction is passé. With it, alas, goes human feeling and sometimes human decency as well – sometimes to be replaced by vulgarity, either of language or of a lack of sense of boundaries, which comes when everything is electronically and instantly transmitted with no filters and no sense of decorum.
My wife chimes in again: “William Alexander Percy [a man of letters in early 20th Century Mississippi, and cousin-and-adoptive-parent of author Walker Percy] wrote that ‘manners are essential, and are essentially morals.’” That was from memory. Snatching up one of the elder Percy’s books, she quickly finds another quote she’s looking for: “Vulgarity, a contagious disease like the itch, unlike it is not a disease of the surface, but eats to the marrow.”
Unfortunately, I believe this lack of interpersonal respect has infected our politics as well. It may be one (of many) reasons our elected officials no longer can find common ground. As if to prove this thesis, the president’s Jan. 14 press conference, said my wife, was a perfect example.
“He was rude and snide and undignified,” she said. Even the liberal, Obama-admiring Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank was taken aback
: “[U] until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties. On Monday, by contrast, Obama showed unrelenting hostility toward the opposition, accompanying his remarks with dismissive shrugs and skeptical frowns.”
It’s a long way, of course, from lamenting the hegemony of electronic communications to lamenting the behavior of a president, and probably only tenuously related. But both problems are symptomatic of a breakdown in what once were natural human interactions.
Adds my wife in one final bit of wisdom: “It’s not the modern technology that causes these breakdowns; it’s the lazy misuse of that modern technology.”
Our politics and our culture both need a serious reversal of that dehumanizing trend. We can start with some real, live conversations, at least occasionally, while leaving the gizmos at home.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.