Many years ago I dated a nice, pretty girl. For a while, we actually “went steady” in the mode of the day. I did not treat her particularly well. Oh, not abusive or nasty – just diffident and nonchalant (Think Travolta in “Grease” before Newton-John lights his fire). Our dates were pleasant enough, but I craved more excitement, I guess, and I would frequently drop her off after a date, and head for some noisy nightspot where things were really cooking. I thought about, and was vaguely disturbed about this behavior for some time afterwards.
Fast-forward several years. At the beginning of one Lenten season, a priest counseled that instead of giving up something for Lent, we might look around and see if there are people in our lives we have wronged; asking their forgiveness might be a better option than sacrificing candy or movies for 40 days. I looked up my old girl friend – living alone now – and took her to dinner. I apologized to her for my shabby treatment of years before. She accepted it with grace – told me I didn’t really have to apologize for anything, and then said, “You know, Chuck – you never called me by my first name.”
The country singer, David Alan Coe did a song on this once – You Never Even Called Me By My Name – it is probably his best work. I listened to it often over the years, but never associated it with any behavior I was guilty of until my old girl friend pointed it out.
I was stunned, but she spoke the truth. Typical – “Hey Murphy (not her real last name), what movie would you like to see tonight?” Or perhaps some other anonymous – but not particularly endearing – descriptor: “Buddy”, “Pal”, etc., etc. As I looked back and thought about it, I began to see this behavior as one of the most dismissive actions in humankind between people who ostensibly should have some rapport. After my illumination, I vowed never do this again – I would try to approach people with the same honesty and sincerity I would want for myself.
But the more I thought about this episode, the more I became convinced it was just one symptom of a much larger disease that afflicts most all of society. Many commentators say that civility is slowly disappearing in modern life. A frequent complaint in newspaper advice columns is the failure of people to offer a simple “thank you” when appropriate. Typically: A grandmother is distressed that her grandchildren never acknowledge the gifts or checks she mails out for Christmas and birthdays.
Is it possible the root of this is our gradual depersonalization of one another? I once studied the comments employees wrote on the opinion survey form of a large company. The most common complaints didn’t deal with money, conditions or hours:
“My boss doesn’t listen to me”, “I am never told what’s going on”, “I don’t feel my work is appreciated”, etc., etc., etc. Management generally calls these “communication issues”, and that’s fair…but I think that descriptor waters down the bigger problem.
All of these examples deal with acknowledgement, pure and simple – and it is as necessary as oxygen to most humans, because it is affirmation – of our deeds, our contributions, and our very worth. We want it from family and friends, no less than our bosses, teachers, students – almost everyone in fact, that we have any kind of meaningful contact with.
I now pay attention to the name badges on restaurant and store employees who serve me, and address them by name. It may sound trite, but it works. Their faces brighten and their service seems more…personal. I am damned picky about my lattes. I want a swarthy, no-frills drink that tastes as Lino Meiorin, the inventor, intended; good strong espresso and steamed non-fat milk, by golly. No sugar, no exotic flavoring. I don’t have to worry about whether or not Regina is going to get it right anymore.
Some time ago, I went to the local supermarket with one of my wife’s Danish cousins. As I checked out my purchases, I got in a little banter with the cashier on some issue of the day. When we left, my companion asked me, “Do you know her?” I had to admit I didn’t. He was surprised. Chatting up strangers is apparently a common American trait, and not shared in many other cultures.
I taught courses in negotiation for managers and supervisors. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos to keep my presentation current and sharp. One video by Roger Dawson made a particularly strong impression on me. I will try to paraphrase his message. He said common wisdom holds that the opposite of love is hate; that isn’t true, Dawson said. Love and hate are incredibly close together. The opposite of love is indifference. He was speaking from a negotiator’s perspective. If your opposite in a business deal says that he hates your position and couldn’t possibly go along with it, you have something to work with, Dawson joked. You can always come back with something like, “Well, just what would it take for us to make the deal more attractive?”
If you hear, “We’re frankly not interested in what you have…” you really have your work cut out for you.
That is precisely why Rhett Butler’s departing response to Scarlett O’Hara is so devastating. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” This signals a finality against which an appeal does not seem possible. And, to be sure, there are a lot of things in life I don’t give a damn about, and I’ll bet that’s also true of you. That shouldn’t, however, include our fellow planetary travelers.
Chuck Thurston is the author of the Senior Scribbles – Unearthed and Second Dose; Check them out on Second Wind or Amazon