Once upon a time, in the olden days, people actually communicated with each other by speaking in person, standing directly in front of each other with words that were actually spoken out loud. This process had some distinct advantages. You got to see the person’s face and their facial expressions. You saw if they smiled like in “smile when you say that stranger.” You picked up their body language, which is essential because so much communication is nonverbal and words alone don’t tell you the whole story. It also made for more civility in human discourse because most people had learned early on that you’re expected to be polite or at least nonconfrontational when face-to-face. Besides, if you overdid it, you could get punched in the mouth so most of us, when sober, edited what we said.
In observing, you began to see ways that you might be able to compromise to find a mutual solution to a problem and to do it without going for your guns, which—in our world—means calling your lawyer, which can get very pricey. In the 20-plus years I practiced law, I would get those calls from highly agitated clients telling me how someone really screwed them over and they weren’t going to take it. It was a matter of principle and they wanted to sue that SOB. I almost always responded the same way: telling them I really admired their stance on principle, but it could get expensive so if they really wanted to do it, just send me a retainer of $25,000 against fees and another $15,000 for costs. But I always told them to think things over before they did anything; usually they did, and that was generally the end of it.
But that was then and this is now. Today, we have phone calls, email, texting, voicemail, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and—if you’re a kid—20 other software programs that allow you to respond automatically without giving it much thought. The programs record everything and the data will live on in cyber space forever. It’s changed our world, our relationships, our love lives, the way we work and play, how we pick our mates, our business relationships and our leisure.
In my mind, it has coarsened everything. Our president, for example, has been tweeting some pretty nasty things about Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has been a thorn in Trump’s side. Even Trump would never say those kinds of things in a face-to-face discussion with Cummings, but on Twitter, it’s easy. There is no intermediary. No one to say, “Do you really want to say that?” Besides, Trump is a bit of an insomniac and at three o’clock in the morning, all those perceived slights well up in him and by 6 a.m., we get Trump without the filter ready to do battle. It’s bad for him and even worse for the country.
I wish it was just Trump, but I must confess it’s now all of us to one degree or another. Go into Starbucks on any day and everyone is staring into their iPhones. What is it we’re all afraid we are going to miss? Is it that we’re not going to instantly know about the latest senseless shooting or Trump’s latest meaningless tweet or your mate telling you to pick up the dry cleaning? It’s unrelenting and there is no relief. It’s like we’re all afraid to be out of touch, even momentarily. It has changed the pace of modern life and made us all a little nuts.
For example, over the years, I’ve sat on numerous boards of directors. Generally you would go to the meeting, look at the agenda packet, discuss it a bit, vote and then run to catch a plane, and it’s over until the next meeting. Now, as you head to the airport, the email notifications start appearing on your phone. Then the emails in response to the first group of emails. Then the rebuttal emails followed by the surrebuttal emails. The meetings never seem to end. It’s an endless stream of people getting on each other’s nerves because they are constantly engaged. I have my own way of handling it: I simply don’ t respond until the fourth or fifth inquiry. I know it annoys the hell out of people, but I figure it’s either their annoyance or my sanity and I’ve long accepted the reality that not everyone can love you.
End of diatribe.