What We Have Here . . .


Communication (latin communicare):  the process of sharing information, knowledge or meaning.

People don’t write letters anymore. I don’t write letters anymore. Nobody writes letters anymore, I suspect, because not only do they involve too much effort in the production, but also do they take too long to produce a response. We’d like our communication instantaneous, here in the Jetsons future. Immediacy, please — we’re busy.

With all of the myriad ways we’ve created to communicate instantaneously; that is, to produce both our questions and our answers — our calls and responses — it seems to me that there has come to be something seriously broken in that binary: We call, but we don’t respond.

“Sorry I didn’t get back to you,” someone might say if pressed, “I was fill in the blank.” Out of town? So what. In a coma? Understandable. Too busy? What’s that stuff that comes out of the back of a horse again? It would have taken you ten seconds to respond, if you’d wanted to. The actual fill-in-the-blank, in a great many instances, is something along these lines: Sorry I didn’t get back to you. I was simply disinclined to do so. I didn’t feel like it. It didn’t matter enough to me.

We no longer communicate with. We don’t communicate to.  We communicate at people. We lob bunches of words and information at people, assuming they’ll be there to catch and act on them, somehow, and if we want a response right away, we sulk until we get it. When we are the lob-ee, however; when we’re the one’s being dumped on with the communication, and when that communication is simply not that important to us (never mind how important it might be to the lob-er), we blow it off. No “got it.” No “interesting, let me get back to you.” Not even a “phuckoff, you’re being ridiculous.” Simply…not…anything.

This isn’t about generational age, I don’t believe. I’ve experienced this with young and old both. I have a friend who’s often in the habit of sending me a text that obviously took a long time to thumb together; paragraphs. “How are you? I am fine. Great to see you. We must do that again sometime. Did I leave my thingie in your car? What are your thoughts on the movie we saw? Have you spoken to Izzy about the hit?” You’re kidding, right? Let me just pull my car over to the shoulder and spend the next seventeen minutes thumbing back to you, in order of points received. In realization of the great irony that this person used their phone — their telephone — to create that message, I’ll often assume that they are then still proximate to that phone and will attempt to call them back. “Oh,” they’ll say, “I just sent you a text.” There is something in their voice. They’re upset. They’re annoyed. It took them a long time to thumb that. They’re busy. “I know,” I’ll say,” that’s why I’m calling! I haven’t found your thingie, and Izzy was out of town.”

Once, not too long ago, I asked a colleague about his propensity to send detailed texts, instead of using the very same device to very easily make a phone call. “Yeah, but that would involve an actual conversation,” he replied, without a trace of irony or self-awareness. Yes, yes that’s true, it would. Unless you’re praying for voicemail, but God doesn’t usually work that way. Use your grown-up skills. Talk to the nice people. They’re not the same as the video-game people you shoot. They’re far more intricate, and usually less threatening.

It’s no secret that people hide behind technology in lieu of actual face-to-face discussion. Heck, even using the 20th century telephone was technology in place of presence. We all have known people who will say, by way of Devine excuse, “I just don’t like talking on the telephone.” Yes, I hear they’re working on the ones without electrified prongs, but meantime let’s just sort of struggle through it. Does the fact that they “don’t enjoy talking on the phone” mean they’ll go the extra bit and meet to talk face-to-face? Of course not. They’ll just tend not to communicate.

Once, I worked at the headquarters of a very large “Fortune 100” corporation. This corporation, as do all corporations, had spent millions of dollars on their email system, and their overwrought mailing lists were the stuff of legend. Have you ever tried to communicate with anyone, to any true effect, “over email?” Intentions are misread. Bosses are “cc’ed.” Asses are covered. Calls and responses, in a foreshadowing of the dawning Facebook, were endlessly copied and pasted in to still more emails, by way of response, by way of accountability, by way of refutation, by way of communication. A classic example of words being flung far and wide and very little being communicated.

I recently started interacting with a service provider in another state. This person bills their services, as many increasingly do, as being completely on-line, Internet-based. People pay sometimes large amounts of money to take advantage of the knowledge and experience on offer, and as long as the provider is in either a mood or a mode to disseminate information, all’s well. Send an email with your own question, clarification, or idea, though? Nothing. Crickets. Perhaps they haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps they have but they’ll get back to me later. Perhaps there was something inappropriate in my deciding to initiate conversation first. Perhaps they were busy with other things. Regardless of their reason, though, I’m left in the dark. Is it in my spam folder? It’s been three days — did I accidentally delete their response? Maybe I’ll give it another week. How long is too long? The end result, after everything, is nothing. No response. No communication at all.

Picture the same scenario in person: You walk up to someone, you ask them a question, something appropriate, something salient to that particular relationship. Imagine them refusing to meet your gaze, and after a few minutes, while you’re waiting for a response, imagine that they simply walk away. Ridiculous. Probably hardly ever happens, in the real world. But online? Via text? Via email? It happens all the time. You’re left with nothing but a question mark, and no way to follow up.

Because the follow-up is worse. In this gizmo-based non-comminicative communication, there are no options I know of to address the issue. “Did you get my text?” “Did you get my email?” “Did you get my voicemail?” Those are all usually, and in this context understandably, polite versions of “why didn’t you get back to me?” Regardless of the situation, what I will normally find is that the person is offended that I’ve pressed them. Never mind how offended we might be that we were, in effect, completely and wholly blown-off. They are offended that we asked about it. We called them on it. We caught them being bad, and they resent us for it. Can I have my answer now that we’re talking? No. Now I’m mad at you.

I wish we’d grow out of it. I wish we’d all band together and refute the prognosticators who have long said that technology is making us childish, self-serving meatsacks and talk to one another like grown-ups, even just to prove them wrong, damned prognosticators. It takes no more than ten seconds to respond, using our gizmos, in even the most terse and basic of ways. Especially the “professionals” playing grown-up with the neat toys: People have entered in to this relationship respecting you. Have the sense of decency to at least behave, outwardly, as if you respect them, too. It takes so little effort.

Until then, please leave your name, number, and time you called, after the beep. If you’d like to leave a call-back number, press five now. If you’d like to send a fax, press six now. If you’d like to end this call, please hang up now.