Small Courtesies

Every once in a while I send an email to one of my children or grandchildren. I rarely get a reply. Sometimes it is in response to a question they ask me. I try to answer it in an email and I wait in vain for a thank you.

On special occasions, we send a gift. With increasing frequency, we never receive a thank you note, email, phone call, or text message

I am disappointed when this happens. I ask myself is this reasonable? I am bothered by it. Is there anything more unsettling than being ignored, especially by someone you love?

Now I learn that I am out of fashion, that current email etiquette does not require a thank you or acknowledgement.

In the Times Nick Bilton writes, “Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.” I utter a profanity.

If I was speaking in person to someone and they didn’t reply to a question I asked or a remark in our ongoing conversation, it would feel rather strange, to say the least. Yet the rudeness of such silence would be unmistakable.

I am sure I’d get a reply if we were texting each other or speaking on the phone. But not necessarily in an email.

Bilton quotes Baratunde Thurston, a co-founder of something called a “comedic creative company.” “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.” Again, I utter a profanity.

I know I am older than these people and that I come from a tradition that both expects and appreciates a thank you note, regardless of how it is delivered. I do not understand or welcome the new era of digital silence.

I see people on the street, in restaurants, and elevators staring at the screen on their cell phone, usually hitting the keys with their thumbs. Sometimes, their thumbs are moving as fast as the speed of light. It almost seems that this gadget has become attached to their body.

A teacher describes a short seminar she will be teaching. She plans to give the students a few pre-assignments: one is to take a walk, observe what they see around them, but without taking their cell phones. To that I say, “fantastic.”

What an experience that will be, the trauma of a few minutes of solitude without that part of their body, as if they were leaving one of their feet at home before heading out for a walk.

The teacher says, “I am very sure—that asking them to spend half an hour without a cell phone is like asking them to take their clothes off. No cell phones, no cup of coffee—just take a solitary walk.”

I think this teacher deserves the Teacher of the Year award. And I wonder how the students will get by. Will they begin suffering from a new form of traumatic stress disorder? Or need to repair to their psychiatrist before the half hour walk ends?

However, I doubt this exercise will teach them the lost art of saying thank you when they receive a gift or a thoughtful email. I have no idea what it will take to do that?