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The Limits of Civility

March 13, 2012

Note: I just caught an email my brother sent yesterday: Tomorrow is our parent’s 70th wedding anniversary.  We should throw them a party or something. His last sentence was said in jest, as our dad and mom have been gone for 18 and 47 years, respectively. But here it is now 1:30 in the morning, and there is just too much here that cuts too deep to just rattle off in the next few hours. Next week, I will take the time to tell you about them.

But right now, I have an observation or two about manners I want to share with you.

They’ve changed over the years in this town – have you noticed? — and I wonder what it means. And no, this isn’t one of those Back-In-My-Day-People-Were-More-Civilized posts.

As a matter of fact, this younger generation (and from where I stand – or lean – most everyone around me is part of a younger generation) seems far more civil. A good barometer of such civility has always been the NYC subway, where these days you’d be hard-pressed to be over 50 and not be offered a seat, especially if you’re female, and so often now, BY females. How many times have I been embarrassed for my gender during rush hour, watching a woman stand to give an older person a seat while all the guys remain on their butts?  But in general younger people, male and female, are offering their seats to older people and pregnant women or women with children more than ever. If you’re in one of those categories, you have a far better chance of sitting through the ride than you did 15 or 25 or 35 years ago.

Then again, the whole town is like a Sunday walk in the park compared to the concrete jungle it was back then, when the mugger (or just the fear of him) ruled the street after dark.

I recall being a young man and coming up the subway stairs at Astor Place with Debby at 10:00 or 11:00 or (gulp!) midnight, and mapping out our walk back to Pad Six (on 11th and A) as if it were a paramilitary operation. Today, you couldn’t get mugged in the East Village after midnight if you had C-Notes hanging from your pockets.

So one could make a case for this being a more civilized town. If, that is, one ignored current day electronic communications.  

As a purveyor of a service, and as a friend and a family member, I’ve come to learn the dark side of the civility that’s in fashion. Which is that people can no longer say No directly, or even Goodbye For Now. They’ve become more polite and indirect than a convention of Japanese Canadians.

So statements like, “I’m getting a call; I’ll get right back to you” or “I’ll think about it” come with an unspoken prayer that you get the hint that what they really mean is Goodbye or No Thanks, or Bug Off.

Somehow it’s thought that a direct communication like “No” is more hurtful or disappointing than expecting and waiting around for a call back that never comes.

Maybe it serves me right for continuing to prefer actual live vocalized conversation here in Texttown.  When couples describe to me the last argument they had via email or text, and I wince, I wonder if they see me as hopelessly stuck in the 20th Century. Communication between two parties can deteriorate so fast on a screen that if international diplomacy ever devolves to texting, your next investment had better be in a good fallout shelter.

But as we thumb our ride into the future, we blind ourselves to the interpersonal distancing inherent in the technology we use. Couples may text each other 40 times a day, but that’s no substitute for actual intimacy. And resorting to Facebook, Twitter or texts to express thoughts and feelings to those who matter most to you is no substitute for actual social skills.

And such intimacy and skills involve, among other things, the ability to say words other than Awesome and Whatever, but actual self-defining statements like, No; and I don’t like that; or I disagree; or I’m angry at, or disappointed in, you.

Direct communication is at times neither nice nor pleasant and sometimes not even civil. But it is intimate and, if you’re being authentic, you can paradoxically bond with someone as you confront and engage them. At least that’s what I’d appreciate more of from people, and more from myself toward others as well. That kind of directness can take courage that I sometimes lack in the moment, and perhaps others do too.  

But whether on the giving or receiving end, I could do better with less nice and more real.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    March 13, 2012 1:13 pm

    Great post….this is something that worries me
    And also something I am effected by….I
    Rarely call or answer calls anymore….text and emails are all I seem to send.

    It is not a positive thing. Often my wife Laura and I joke about getting rid of our Iphones, but
    I fear that wont really happen.

  2. murray permalink
    March 13, 2012 1:28 pm

    You old fart,
    I disagree with you
    I’m really angry with you
    and I’m disappointed in you.
    Is this real enough.
    Luddite 2012

  3. March 13, 2012 2:49 pm


    It was Charlie Wininger who virtually pushed me out of NYC back in 1985, Big Sur-bound, long before the days of cell phones, email, facebook and twitter, when we merely attempted to have a REGULAR PHONE CALL. Here’s how the conversation went:

    “Hi, it’s Charlie.”

    “Sorry, I’m out the door, can I call you tonight?”

    “I’m not here tonight, can I try you back in the morning?”

    “I’m gone for the day at the crack of dawn, how about tomorrow night?”


    on and on it went, until we were forced to get our little calendar books out, and had to BOOK a PHONE APPOINTMENT with each other for TWO WEEKS LATER.

    I hung up the phone and said to myself, “I gotta get out of this city,” and I did. And I left my calendar book behind and have lived without one ever since.

    Well, until recently, when I discovered the Calendar APP on my laptop. But I had a good 10 years with no appt. book!

  4. March 17, 2012 2:11 am

    Young people do get up more for pregnant women and the elderly than they used to, but that may be because they are expected to. In the case of priority seating, they are required to. One thing people still don’t do is get out of the way when people are trying to get out of a train. But generally people keep quietly to themselves. Maybe there was something to James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory and by cracking down on petty crime the police have created a generally more civil atmosphere on the trains.

    Your point about the dangers of internet communication is very important, I think. Internet communication does seem to devolve into acrimony and misunderstanding much more easily than conversations by phone or in person. And it’s not just interpersonal intimacy that we lose over the internet. We lose our contact with immediate reality in general. The internet, after all, is nothing more than symbols–not reality itself, but a symbolic representation of reality.

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