Two truths: (1) Since time immemorial, people have been decrying the death of courtesy. “What once were vices are manners now,” wrote Seneca two thousand years ago, and I’m betting some Egyptologist can point me to the equivalent in hieroglyphics. (2) Just because a kvetch has been repeated in the past, that doesn’t make it untrue today.
My kvetch is this: I find myself quite distressed by the erosion of what I’d thought was a social consensus, the agreement to reciprocate courtesy, responding politely to one’s fellow human beings. Lately, especially, there’s often an unseeing indifference to others’ feelings where I once would have expected reply. Happily, my friends and colleagues continue to behave with grace: caught up in deadlines and obligations, any of us might miss an occasional call or email, and when attention is drawn to our omission, apologize and make it right.
What’s bothering me is not the occasional mishap. It’s what appears to be the pervasive new policy that says it’s normal, reasonable, and absolutely okay to ignore the custom of reciprocal response. Three cases in point:
1. RSVP’eed off. Have you noticed how what used to be a clear understanding about social invitations has now eroded? At an hour when he knew other guests were already arriving for a holiday dinner, one invitee texted as follows: “I’m waiting for a phone call and won’t make it.” Life happens: I’m used to people letting me know of a contingency when accepting an invitation, a sort of tentative yes. I’m used to people having an emergency appear earlier on the day of an event, requiring a guest to alert a host to a possible cancellation. I’m used to social invitations of the “drop by” variety: few of us are inconvenienced or offended if every invitation to an open house doesn’t produce an actual guest.
But when I told the other guests at a sit-down holiday dinner about that courtesy-free text message cancellation, they joined in the chorus of kvetches, sharing their own tales of communiques that were utterly devoid of awareness that actual human beings—the same ones who had shopped, cooked, cleaned, and prepared to host—were on the receiving end.
2. The new rules of the dating game. In online dating world, I sometimes receive emails from men, and sometimes send them. (A friend who is venturing forth online just asked me about the ratio, preparing himself to expect whether or not to initiate, so I went back and counted: I send approximately one note for every three I receive, which I’m guessing is a not atypical gender-based ratio—but it’s just a wild guess.) Usually, I’m motivated to write a brief note by something in the man’s profile—to comment on a book or piece of music that I love and he has mentioned, or to say I was touched by something he wrote about himself.
A while ago, one of these men replied that his friends had told him not to respond to emails unless he was definitely interested. He had just met someone he was pursuing, and was about to deactivate his profile, but despite his friends’ caution, he felt it only polite to write me and say so. I thanked him and replied that I thought his friends had it wrong: with rare exceptions, I always respond at least to thank my correspondent, politely decline, and wish him well. It takes no more than two minutes.
The exceptions are men who write with an obscene or insulting suggestion, and those (often far away) who send an enraptured but generic paragraph inviting the recipient to contact them at another address. Occasionally, I’ve received the identical generic message from the same man several times, at intervals of a few weeks. I always wonder if anyone falls for it.
Last week, one of the men I’d decined replied that if I wasn’t interested, “why did you bother to send a message at all?” (This particular man was a pyschoanalyst who also diagnosed my reluctance as a neurotic symptom, but that’s another story.) This is the sign of a sea-change, no? Questioning why I would deign to respond rather than the opposite? Here’s what I wrote him:
I answered because another human being wrote to me and it is common courtesy. Unless a message is threatening or otherwise seems deranged, I make some kind of reply. It’s hard for me to understand how that basic application of the golden rule doesn’t apply for so many people in online dating world (some women have told me they receive any kind of reply to perhaps ten percent of the messages they write). Outside of dating world, I get messages from students, readers, researchers too, and it feels minimally humane to reply to them, so I don’t see why this should be different. But maybe I’m missing the obvious. Your question implies that you see it differently; can you explain why you wouldn’t at least say to any correspondent, “thank you, I don’t think this fits me, but I send good wishes…”?
Are you surprised that he didn’t reply?
There’s so much I’ve enjoyed about online dating, but this part worries me. How is it different from, say, responding to an invitation to share the next dance by turning your back and pretending no one is there? Without this type of minor empathy to lubricate social relations, who are we? I think of people who find the whole dating enterprise daunting—shy, wounded, risk-averse—who have to screw up their courage even to initiate contact, and who then aren’t given the courtesy of a reply. I can’t exactly extrapolate this to the breakdown of the social contract, but really, I kind of think it is. Since I’m not writing to women, I have no idea if offering no response at all is acceptable in equal proportions to both genders. Is it?
3. The customer service that almost wasn’t. I’ve been a subscriber to eMusic for a while, and have enjoyed downloading music at a significant savings compared to iTunes. A subscription entitles you to a monthly total, and if you don’t download enough music each month to cover it, you lose the balance left in your account. This past month, I had extra funds in my account, a bonus for turning a friend onto the service. Each fund has its own expiration date: my regular monthly subscription expired first, and according to the expiration date, I had another month to use the bonus funds. When I thought I’d downloaded enough music to exhaust my soon-to-expire subscription for this month, I checked my account balance. The site had deducted the cost of my downloads from the bonus fund, leaving my monthly subscription intact: I had to use it in the next couple of days or lose it.
Kind of crazy, hm? It felt deceptive and irritating, so I headed to the customer service page to inquire. I sent three messages and received not a single word of reply or acknowledgement. I spent considerable time online searching for a customer service phone number before I discovered that it is listed in one place only: on the page you get when you press a button labeled “cancel my account.”
This morning, a nice man in customer service agreed this shouldn’t be happening and promised to keep my subscription balance from expiring this month. He sounded harried, but he was responsive and thorough. That kept me from canceling my subscription for now. He implied it was a one-time glitch. I told him this had happened to me once before (that time I hadn’t been able to find the customer service phone number, and given the imminent expiration of my balance and the non-response to my emails, I gave in and downloaded mainly to meet the deadline). He said they were looking into it.
Googling “eMusic customer service” turns up a litany of complaints. Here’s one representative tweet (forgive the insult to art projects):
@eMusic customer service is so bad that it goes beyond the realm of what my mind can imagine is possible. It’s like an art project.
Why do business in this way? It’s hard to believe that the loss of custom doesn’t cost more than a decent customer service department would; my own guess is that it would not only help to retain customers, but by changing the company’s online reputation, attract new ones.
So what do you think? A new era of vices normalized as conventional manners? Or have I just been lucky up till now to think that the principle of reciprocity was shared? Either way, I can’t see much future for civil society without the capacity for empathy that demands response. Can you?