Sunday, February 19, 2012

Courtesy and warmth in the digital age

Courtesy, so passé.  As well you might think of etiquette.  A lovely word, but frankly, what does it mean in the 21st century?  An age where we do most of our communicating via digitalia, even when we sit three desks from one another.

Great for the written word, not so great for the spoken.  Once upon a time we used to speak to one another on the phone or in person.  Now we just txt, tweet, fb message, such that when we do come into close, inescapable contact everyone's rendered mute.  Like in a lift.  I wonder, is this a peculiarly British trait? I noticed during my time in Madrid that on entering a lift you greeted everyone with 'buenos dias' and on exiting, left with a cheery 'adios'.  In grumpy old Britsville these days your physical presence is rarely acknowledged.  Everyone's too busy staring at a screen.  

And so I got to thinking, is this the end of etiquette as we used to know it - 'smiles, pleasantries, smalltalk, friendly contact - be it physical or eye - between strangers of any kind?  Or is this the dawn of a whole new era...

The fact is, all these clever little artefacts that we clutch to our person 24/7 make being nice to one another easier than ever.  It takes a split second to send a 'hello', 'happy birthday', 'congratulations', 'sorry'.  You don't need to worry about spending time you haven't got speaking to someone on the phone, sitting down and writing them a letter, sharing a pot of tea.  You can get on with whatever you're doing and still get in touch. You can pop them a text, send them an e-card, or a video of yourself stark naked singing 'happy birthday, mr president' with a pepperoni up each nostril, should you choose.  

Communication has never been so easy, nor has it had so much creative potential.  It's a shame we don't exploit it more. Creativity aside, there really is no excuse for not acknowledging a gift, email, text, card, phone message, inquiry or job application.  Take note all you employers out there, this relates as much to the professional world as it does to the personal.  Less than marginal effort is required these days to get back to someone.  To do nothing while simultaneously plugged into your laptop, smartphone and iPad is beyond lazy.  It's rude.  The irony is we spend so much time telling the world mundane trivia about ourselves on Twitter and Facebook platforms that we have no time left for conventional one on one.  It's always bemused me that people come to you to request friendship on Facebook, then don't respond when you say, 'How nice to hear from you.  How are you?'

I am hopeful however, that this wonderful, amazing, ingenious digital age we're living in will herald a new era.  An era of digital courtesy.  Let's call it The New Courtesy.  The speed at which we've adopted all things digital into our lives has left etiquette lagging behind.  A plethora of means, but none of the manners.  (Yes, yes, I know, not everyone online is a discourteous oaf, but screen barriers do, as most of us have experienced, facilitate bad behaviour.)  To my knowledge, there is no rulebook when it comes to digital etiquette, so perhaps someone needs to create one.  Or alternatively we should just re-apply the same old manners our pre-digital face-to-face ancestors practised to our new digital platform and marvel at how easy it is to be polite these days.  And not just polite, but delightful, hilarious, heart-warming, tear-jerking.  Digital media gives us the opportunity to personally communicate like never before.

So get off Twitter for a moment and get back to those who'd like to hear from you, for whom it matters.  And who knows, perhaps some time from now, when we're all screen-weary and nervous of future generations losing the power of speech, digital courtesy might lead us back to the real, spoken, thing.

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