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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Signal of Readiness

Extracts from a Times piece that caught my eye from the new book by Lynne Truss - she of the punctuation guide.

Talk to the Hand is LT's take on courtesy:

"We are not invisible to one another. The problem is that people are increasingly unwilling to admit when they are out in public, that they are not nevertheless — through sheer force of will — actually in private ...

When they are on trains, or in the street, or in a queue for taxis, they can’t say the courtesy words because to do so would explode their idea of the entire experience, which is that they are alone and that nobody else exists ...

Politeness is a signal of readiness to meet someone halfway; the question of whether politeness makes society cohere, or keeps other people safely at arm’s length, is a false opposition. Politeness does both, and that is why it’s so frightening to contemplate losing it. Suddenly, the world seems alien and threatening — and all because someone’s mother never taught him to say “excuse me” or “please” ...

And I lump the internet into this subject because it is the supreme example of an impersonal and inflexible system which will provide information if you do all the hard work of searching for it, but crucially:

  • a) doesn’t promise anything as a reward for all the effort;
  • (b) will never engage in dialogue;
  • (c) is much, much bigger than you are; and
  • (d) exists only in a virtual kind of way, so never has to apologise.

    It seems to me that most big businesses and customer service systems are either modelling themselves on the internet or have learnt far too much from a deep reading of Franz Kafka. Either way, they certainly benefit because our brains have been pre-softened by our exposure to cyberspace. Our spirits are already half-broken. We have even started to believe that clicking “OK” is an act of free will, while “Quit” and “Retry” represent true philosophical alternatives ...

    Are some of us extending our personal space an unreasonable distance — basically, for as far as the eye can see or the ear can hear? Why don’t we accept that being out of doors means being with other people who do things we can’t control? Yet our hamster balls just keep clashing with other people’s hamster balls, and it isn’t comfortable. Academic friends say their students answer calls during lectures. Lovers lolling on the public grass on a sunny day glare at you if you look at them ... People chat in the cinema during a film. It’s as if we now believe, in some spooky virtual way, that wherever we are, it’s home."

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