Something New Under the Sun

In my last post, I talked about the differences in how “older things” are viewed in our culture as opposed to ancient cultures. I noted that our culture tends in large part to esteem what is new, while relegating older customs (or, sadly, older persons) to a past that need have no bearing on current preferences. I noted that ancient cultures, including much of what we find in the Bible, did the opposite: they largely valued the worth of inherited traditions, and tended to work within those structures even when innovating.

Yet sometimes we do witness things that represent the reverse. In the Bible, the famous lament of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew, Qoheleth) that “there is nothing new under the sun” echoes across the ages from a man who lived in a time when things rarely changed, and even more rarely changed for the better. But we also witness elements within our own culture doing the reverse of the above pattern. The most prominent example I can think of these days is the negative reaction among some to the stratospheric rise of new social networking — communication in the form of email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting. Over the last couple of years, we saw various talking heads appearing on TV to talk about what we are “losing” to these new forms of communication. Then we were treated (and continue to be) to written commentaries, or even whole books, on the virtues of the older forms of communication over against the deficits of the newer ones. Invariably, the argument is something along the lines of how people form better relationships and are more satisfied when their primary forms of communication are in-person visits and phone calls rather than written forms such as email, Facebook, or texting.

Let me say that in-person interaction is, indeed, usually the most preferable and satisfying. I don’t think that even the most ardent email, Facebook, or texting aficionado would dispute that in principle. But, as we all know, in-person interaction is not always possible, especially in a modern world where most people — certainly most people who have not yet reached middle age — have a number of friends and family who do not live in physical proximity. Sometimes, the physical proximity is there, but the open time is not. This may especially be the case with thirty-somethings and younger, who often lead frenetic lives filled with all kinds of disparate occupations and obligations as they try to establish their places in the world. Such people may indeed get together for coffee or a visit with friends, but during the times when they do not see each other face to face, they more and more rely on written-form, instant communication to keep in frequent touch. More and more, it is becoming clear that such forms of communication are surpassing the traditional phone call for the day-to-day comments one might make to someone else outside one’s nuclear family.

Someone I know terms this phenomenon “asynchronous” (or non-synchronous) communication. It is not intrinsically worse than the “synchronous” communication that comes with a phone call. Surely, there are certain interactions that are better over the phone: in-depth conversations, for example, that cover a broad range of topics too large to put in writing efficiently. Or when the parties involved are a couple who delight in nothing more than the sound of the other’s voice. But a phone call does require that both parties cease what they are doing and carve out the time necessary for synchronized communication, during which they can usually do nothing else. This is sometimes not practical for many, in a world with full and conflicting schedules. So people have turned to “asynchronous” communication, which allows them to keep up interaction and conversation with others more frequently — and in a freer fashion — than if they relied on the phone.

There is also the comment of my (then middle-aged!) high school history teacher, who, before anyone had heard of email, insisted that he disliked talking on the phone so much that he would not do it unless absolutely necessary. His problem was the odd and sometimes awkward quality of phone conversation: not seeing the other person’s face and getting that unspoken feedback while talking to them can feel strange, especially if there is a pause (and we all know there is nothing worse than phone pauses). Remembering his comment led me to think of something else: what if people talked on the phone all the time for decades not because they intrinsically would have preferred it, but because they had no choice — other than postal mail, in which case they would have to wait a minimum two weeks for a reply? Indeed, how could email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting have enjoyed such an unbounded explosion of popularity if they did not fulfill something that many people felt they needed or wanted? Clearly, these technologies do provide something that many people like, and it makes one wonder if it’s just because now there is a choice, and before, there wasn’t.

It is also amusing to remind ourselves that when phones were first invented, many people most assuredly raised the very same perspective that something would be “lost” with the new-fangled invention. Others, assuredly, were delighted. We see the same thing happening today. For that matter, one could amuse oneself further by considering that written communications such as email, when personal and not business in nature, bear more similarity to old-style communication by letter. I read an opinion piece by a teenager in my regional newspaper recently, in which the writer observed that when people around his parents’ age rail against texting as a legitimate form of communication, it’s usually just “adults not understanding what they’re looking at.” Another opinion piece (written by a thirty-something) noted that being on Facebook is like being “at a cocktail party, where there are all these different conversations going on.” That’s not a bad thing, even if an in-person cocktail party is ideal.

Perhaps we should take it as a good thing that electronic communication has blossomed so thoroughly — it could not have done so, after all, if people did not want to talk to each other. We do not live in the time of Ecclesiastes. There is, indeed, something new under the sun — even many things. And they’re not all bad.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

An Epiphany at Home Depot

I was in Home Depot the other day and got to thinking about how our culture has changed. Specifically, how it has changed in terms of the way people interact with one another. Yes, it’s in vogue now to write articles and even books on whether technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter have brought us together or moved us further apart, or some combination of the two; but that’s not what I’m doing right here. Personally, I am always a little irked when I hear that “social networking” technologies do not bring people closer together, but rather the opposite, and that they take pride of place among the modern innovations contributing to the assured decay of society as we know it. Such grand conclusions irk me because it is only through Facebook that I have reconnected with friends who were once a daily part of my life, with whom I had lost touch over the natural course of things. Texting allows me to communicate quickly in the midst of a busy day with those who are close to me. There are also various parts of my life that sometimes make it difficult to carve out a significant block of time for phone calls — not to mention the fact that I’ve never really been an enthusiastic phone person. Trying to have an in-the-moment conversation with someone without seeing any of their facial expressions can make for some really weird conversational dynamics.

But I digress. I was in Home Depot the other day with my small daughter, looking for “odorless mineral spirits.” (Yes, that’s its actual name.). Such mineral spirits were going to aid me in the vexing task of prepping our bathroom walls — long the sorry victims of decades-old wallpaper from a bygone era — for painting. I was on my way to the aisle when I passed a kindly gentleman in his senior years whose job it was to stand near the entrance and answer questions and direct people. Figuring that I knew where the mineral spirits were, I intended on giving him a polite nod and passing by. He, however, was enthralled by my (admittedly adorable) daughter and promptly engaged her in conversation. Having recently blossomed into a social butterfly, the likes of which my rather solitary nature has never managed to approach, she complied. The next thing I knew, I too was welcomed into the gentleman’s conversation, and what I thought would be a passing nod became a real interchange among strangers.

The gentleman informed me that his wife helped their local church set up for an annual flea market that was only a few weeks away, and I should remember to go, since I might find some little thing for my daughter. When he told me the name of the church and the town (which is next to the town in which that Home Depot resides), I replied that I in fact live in that town with the church, and it is right up the street from me. Delighted, he said that he lived in my town and even told me his name, street, and described the exterior of his house and the house next to it. In a very easy way, he extended his hand and asked what my family name was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I shook his hand and told him. He said if I ever went by his street, stop in because the missus would love my daughter. Then he bade me goodbye and went to help someone else.

I was left with a very warm feeling and a bunch of thoughts about how our American society has changed. Or, if not all of America, at least certain areas and certainly Generation X and below. If that helper at Home Depot had been someone of my generation (I shall coyly state that I am somewhere just north of 30), there would surely have been no spontaneous engagement of my child in conversation — but there would not even have been an unsolicited engagement of me, a peer, in conversation. We would have politely let each other be and never discovered that we live in the same town. I would not have learned about the local flea market, and I certainly would not have been extended a hand, informed of a family name, street, house exterior, and asked for my family name; and never in this time-space continuum would I have received an invitation to stop in while passing by on that street.

Most importantly, that warm feeling, that feeling of someone wanting to talk to me, to be interested in me just because I happened to be in physical proximity, would never have been experienced. No casual friendly bond would have formed. An easy, pleasant experience between three human beings would not have come to pass.

This is not the fault of Facebook, email, or texting (probably). I honestly do not know what caused it. Do you? That’s not a rhetorical question: if anyone has ideas, feel free to post them. My best guess is the faster pace of daily life now, and who on Earth knows the ins and outs of how that process developed over the decades. Generations older than my own still experience this faster pace, but spent much of their lives and formative years in a culture that valued stopping to chat with someone you don’t know, going across the street to say hi to your neighbor without worrying that you would intrude, extending your hand and asking someone their family name and telling them your own and having it be the most natural thing in the world.

But in my broad geographical area, even members of older generations tend not to be as interested in conversation if they are working registers. Yet I experienced the opposite recently in New Hampshire. They still have “general stores” there, which have become an endangered species in Massachusetts except perhaps in the western part. At the general store (or even most stores), we experienced something unusual to us: the clerks actually wanted to talk to us beyond “Hi” and “Have a good day.” They would ask us genial, easygoing questions about how we were and how was our day, and if they didn’t have a big line, they’d unfailingly start with anecdotes about their own lives that seemed to dovetail with whatever we’d been talking about. And the conversations went from there. No hurry. No implications that you’re taking up their time and they’d rather not be talking to you.

Why is this still in New Hampshire, and undoubtedly in similar places? Is it the countryside? A slower pace? Fewer people? What is it, and why has it been lost in so many other places? We can’t blame email and Facebook for this; it is something else. I, for one, would be sorry indeed to see no more of that old-fashioned interaction.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010