Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Daily Social Commentary: May 29th, 2007

By Doug Branson

Every good social commentary starts with a story. And most good social commentaries start over coffee. This one starts with both.

The woman working the register of one of my local coffee stores was talking nicely with one of her friends when I approached the counter. I smiled and when she made her way over to me I said something to the effect of, “Hey, how’s it going?” Expecting nothing more than a “pretty good” and nothing less than a sarcastic laugh and a roll of the eyes, what I received was far more rude in shocking. Nothing. Not a blink or a second thought, nothing. Now, I’m by no means old-fashioned. I’m growing up in the internet age. I know that conversations and attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter.

But this was less about the words she didn’t say and more about the interaction that she failed to receive or give. There was a dead look in her eyes. A body language that screamed automaton and stale tone that made it seem as if what I said hadn’t even registered. Awkwardly, I began to adapt to her language, giving my order quickly and reaching for my debit card and showing her my method of payment. Waving it in the air, like I was giving sign language. And finally a response…

“Would you like whip cream with that?”

Hardly interaction. It was straight out of her employee training day. After I paid she went back to talking politely with her friend.

Point is this, she wasn’t having a bad day, I wasn’t rude, she wasn’t mute, she could speak with her friend just fine, she knew the rules of the employee/customer relationship but that’s the full extent of her knowledge of how to talk to strangers went.

No one knows how to talk to strangers anymore. Hell, we hardly know how to talk to people we know. And talking to the people we love is, for the most part, an exercise in frustration.

Think about the last time you had a wonderful talk with a stranger that wasn’t under the influence of something other than caffeine. If it was a month ago you are doing pretty good, a week ago and you might consider a run in politics.

And I don’t claim to be better at this whole deal than the lady at the coffee shop. I’m guilty too. I’ve been in a store line and a man or woman over 50 has made a quip about something or other and I awkwardly shrugged it off or attempted to give a response that gets muddled and turned into a coughing fit. And I almost never interact with strangers. But I do make exceptions for the people serving me or in the rare occasions that I serve others.

For this woman I believe it was more than an overall social deficiency that our culture is suffering from right now, I’ve narrowed it down to three things.

1. Paranoid culture

2. New global impacts on communication

3. Strict interpretation of the employee/customer relationship

Paranoid Culture

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports violent crime, murder, robbery, rape have all increased since 1960. In the case of violent crime it has increased dramatically (Peaking at 5 times as much in 1996 and as of 2005 it has still tripled). The world is a dangerous place to live and people have become more and more aware of this fact. It manifests itself in tangible ways, like increased non-hunting gun ownership, and also in unconscious ways, for example a fear of speaking with strangers.

But wait…taking a closer look at the stats, crime rates have decreased since the early eighties so this culture of paranoia can’t be explained on statistics alone. We have to look at how crime is perceived. Increased coverage of crime is apparent. Twenty four hour news networks devote hours to crime coverage and prevention. Dateline’s Chris Hansen has taken an active role in exposing child molestation. High profile murders and kidnappings are not only covered in full detail on these networks but trickle down to the 48 Hours and 60 Minutes of the world. If I watched this stuff regularly I would be afraid to leave the house. I don’t think there is a question that this affects the way we communicate with people we don’t know. Trust is hard to come by these days.

The paranoia is instilled in us at a very early age. What is one of the first thing you learn as a young child? Never, under any circumstances, talk to stranger, no exceptions. In many cases when the child grows up to be a young adult they aren’t told, “You can protect yourself now and you know which situations are dangerous and which are not, so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation every once in a while.” Instead some people are growing up unconsciously frightened of everyone they don’t know and labeling everyone as a child rapist. And why not, its all over television.

What are the implications of this? It could have something to do with why crime rates are down. People are much more aware of crime these days and it can be argued that the paranoia culture has something to do. But I believe we have sacrificed too much of our trust in humanity. It has turned us into a fleshy version of the T-9000, immediately identifying people as threat or friend. In the case of our case study at the coffee shop, my conversation may be merely a matter of statistics. Interaction with me that rises above strict professionalism has more dangers than benefits.

New Technological Impacts on Communications

This one is an easy one to see and is talked about all the time. We are a techno-obsessed population able to throw our thoughts, voices, and minds to the far reaches of the Earth and back. The internet, cable television, and cell phones have revolutionized communication in ways we are only beginning to understand. I mean for God sakes your reading this piece of communication theory on the newest innovation in journalism, the blog.

Two ways I believe these technologies have affected our communication, that are relevant to this discussion, are that it has created value shifts in verbal versus virtual communication and that it encourages exclusivity and discourages outside intrusion.

Our cell phones and laptops have taken the load off of much of the verbal communication that burdened us down in previous decades. Some choose to text when calling is just as real a possibility, others result to email or MySpace posts knowing that they will see the person the next day. The overall effect is that we are beginning or already have devalued verbal communication. It’s simply not important enough. It certainly wasn’t to the woman at the register or she would have engaged me. Perhaps if I would have texted her KRZR I would have garnered a pleasantry

But that’s only if I had her phone number, which brings me to my second effect: exclusivity. Think about how selective we have become about who we communicate with. Before caller ID the only way to keep someone from communicate with you was to un hook your phone and blow up your mailbox. Then you would have been called a recluse and a weirdo, perhaps a Uni-bomber.

Now, we have buddy-lists that we can block others from accessing. We have friend lists and privacy settings built into our MySpace and Facebook pages. Caller ID standard on all cell phones allows us to miss any call we don’t want. And we have lists of names built into our phones that ensure that no one we don’t know can sneak through and speak with us. Most techno-savvy teenagers have a virtual gauntlet of measures in place to prevent strangers from contacting them. I have often tried to talk to someone my age or a little younger and gotten a “Wait, you’re talking to me and haven’t sent me a friend request yet. What are you thinking?” face.

This certainly has an advantage, in that it keeps us safe from those who would harm us. But we sometimes take it to a whole new level and it can affect the way we deal with people outside the techno-sphere. I believe this is what was going on between me and the woman at the register. I was not part of her club, her friend list. Thus I was more than a possible danger to her I was also unimportant in her universe. The friend she was talking to was obviously allowed in that circle.

The employee/customer relationship

I saved this baby for last because it has a little to do with both of the above points. In the global economy that we live in today customers are now seen as nothing more than a statistic, demographic, dollar bill, and potential devastating lawsuit to most companies. This is seen by the CEO all the way down to the smarmy white suit who comes to give a seminar on how not to burn people with coffee and how EXACTLY to speak to customers to avoid conflict.

We don’t live in the age of the “Mom and Pop” stores and if my coffee shop loses me as a customer they won’t sweat because they have a line of customers behind me who just want there damn coffee. This could be another article all-together but long story short if people see you as a dollar bill they will treat you as a dollar bill. It’s an attitude that seeps all the way down to the workers.

Businesses are also paranoid of being sued for any number of reasons and as such they will do anything to avoid conflict at all costs. Employees are forced into mindless seminars where they have to adhere to countless regulations and have there every word with the customer scripted. Try and throw off a McDonalds employee with a “Do you have children?” They will give you a frightened look, settle down, and calmly tell you about the new low-fat options they now offer. Strangers are a danger to many companies and they are treated as such.

The lady at the coffee shop didn’t know how to react to my simple greeting because it probably wasn’t addressed in her seminar on “Efficient Coffee Making and You.” She did know how to ask me for whip cream and if I had a discount card. I felt so special.


I’m no Marxist revolutionary screaming, "Down with technology! Down with the global economy and capitalism!” I love the internet, I own a cell phone, AIM, Facebook profile, and am considering getting a Blackberry. Technology is great. I watch MSNBC, CNN and Fox News and Dateline’s To Catch a Predator series is one of my favorite programs. But I also love human interaction and I’m still polite to friends and strangers alike. My point is not that we should, as a society or as individuals, give this stuff up. But I do believe that a lot of people aren’t aware of how it affects the way they speak to people. The more aware we are the more we keep what is human about us, the ability to adapt and interact with our environment. Let’s not all turn into automatons. Talk to a stranger every once in a while. Even if they look at you like you’re crazy and walk away, any interesting interaction will keep our mind, body and souls from completely shutting down.

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