Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The human touch

Some time ago, I bookmarked an article called "We expect more from technology and less from each other" by Sherry Turkle. The writer tells how she was attending a Boston Globe panel on "cyberetiquette" which included such advice as no texting at family dinner, no texting in restaurants, and don't bring your laptop to your children's sporting events (no matter how tempting). In short, how to be polite in a linked society.

Ms. Turkle highlighted a question from a genuinely exhausted and harassed woman in the audience who explained that as a working mother, she had very little time to talk to her friends, to e-mail, to text, to keep up. "Actually," she confessed, "the only time I have is at night, after I'm off work and before I go home, when I go family shopping at Trader Joe's [a supermarket]. But the guy at the checkout line, he wants to talk. I just want to be on my phone, into my texts and Facebook. Do I have the right to just ignore him?"

Most of the panel speakers responded with sympathy and confirmed that this woman did indeed have the right to privacy and shouldn't be disturbed as she used her smart phone during a checkout procedure.

But Ms. Turkle had a different perspective. She wrote, "I said that we all know that the job that the man at the checkout counter was doing can now be done by a machine. But until he is replaced by a machine, I think he should be treated as a person, with all the rights of a person. And that includes a bit of human exchange, since that is clearly what makes his job tolerable for him, makes him feel that in his job, this job that could be done by a machine, he is still a human being." [Emphasis added.]

Needless to say, her answer was not exactly greeted with cries of enthusiasm and warm empathetic understanding. Instead, people didn't want to hear it.

The fact is, people have lost the art of polite chitchat. Many people do indeed view checkout clerks and other service personnel as invisible machines, there to silently and efficiently perform their service function and nothing else.

It reminds me of a line from Bill Bryson's excellent book At Home, a fascinating history of domestic life (largely from an English perspective).

In the chapter covering domestic servants, Mr. Bryson observed that most people during the nineteenth century (the age of servants) were no more fond of their servants than we are today of our appliances -- they were merely ambulatory machines whose sole purpose in life was to serve, tirelessly and thanklessly.

It's an uncomfortable observation and an attitude which we, today, in our modern times, would like to claim we would never have. Until, of course, we encounter a checkout clerk or a hotel chambermaid or a garbage collector or other person whose job is to make our existence more comfortable, sanitary, or efficient.

And how do we treat them?

"What once would have seemed like 'good service,'" notes Ms. Turkle in reference to checkout clerks making polite chitchat, "is now an inconvenience... We also want technology to step in as we invite people to step back. It used to be that we imagined that our mobile phones would be for us to talk to each other. Now, our mobile phones are there to talk to us."

Yikes. I don't know if I like the direction this is taking. At what point do we lock ourselves in a room with our technology and deny all human interaction because our smart phones and laptops offer us a window into the outside world?

Politeness and manners -- and a human touch -- is the lubricant that makes our society tolerable. If we're too tired and exhausted after a long day's work to engage in polite chitchat with a checkout clerk -- and thus make his job more tolerable and enjoyable -- then we need to examine our attitude and whether or not we consider the checkout clerk to be merely a human "appliance."

"[S]mitten with technology," concludes Mr. Turkle, "...we don't much want to talk about these problems. But it's time to talk."

I agree. Talk.  Don't text.



  1. I love this post! I have to admit I am guilty of treating clerks as a mere human appliance and I fill horrible! I really never thought about it before until now. I work all day as a sales manager talking on the phone and emailing all day long. The last thing I want to do is talk to people when I get home. I'me very shut off, I hang with my family and that's about it. I find myself often thinking to myself, I hope no one my church stops by tonight.
    Your post points out a simple concept I completely forgot about; The Golden Rule! Treat others how you want to be treated. I would hate to be ignored and treated like an appliance. Why should I treat anyone else in that manner?
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. If this continues, people are going to find out that becoming seriously injured or ill in public is going to lead to the electronic hordes twittering, emailing, texting, sending pics to facebook, etc., while the ill or injured lies there and dies, without help.

    We're fast losing all compassion or care for each other. That makes us all psychopaths!

    dh, Colorado

    1. I've seen examples of this already happening. It makes me fear for our future.


  3. It seems that people have become increasingly self-centered, self-focused, and less communicative with the people around them, due to advanced technology for communication.

    Common courtesy has been replaced with rudeness. We find this even in customer service people as they have no idea how to interact with another human being.

    Cell phones are for the distinct purpose of an emergency or a need to communicate with another person. While cell phones, internet, and other such devices can serve a good purpose, they can also be used for "addictive selfish purposes."

    In my opinion, people who constantly check their e-mail or who have to be continually texting are, most likely, dealing with emotional issues they are refusing to address. Their cell phone has become their 'blankie,' and their escape. Of course, there is the exception, such as the very busy self-employed business person; but even then, they should have the self-control and right priority view to set hours for calls and texts. I did when I ran my own office.

    When a person answers their cell phone or texts when they are with another person, unless it is an emergency, it smacks of rudeness. The message to the person they are with is, "You aren't important enough for my attention, so I'll put you after this call, text, etc."

    Unfortunately, poor communication skills, rudeness, and thoughtlessness, are just a few symptoms of our diseased society.

    1. I agree with your comment completely. The only time I would answer my phone while dealing with someone else is if it were one of my children or my husband. (They are more important to me than anything.) If it were not an emergency I would get off the phone and call them back when I am finished.

      On the flip side I can't stand it when a service person is talking to a coworker while waiting on me. I want the personal touch.

  4. I do not do this and never would...in public..but I am sure that at home I am guilty of this sort of thing just as my husband nods to me as I talk but he is really watching TV. I had noticed more likely in the past 2 or 3 years all the young people who run cash registers do not speak , even when I try to say anything to them in a friendly way they either ignore me or look suspisious and give a short response ,although they will keep up a loud and energetic conversation with the bagger who is their own age. I had attributed this to that great (sarcasm here) idea they we train children NOT to talk to strangers ,would that have been about 20 years ago???I rarely meet anyone of that age or younger who is able to speak in a sociable way to anyone that is an adult. I think that may actually have led to the idea NOW that it is okay to speak to an electronic device and not humans. I taught my girls that it is polite to speak to adults ( and they were with ME as I felt it was my duty to keep my eye on them as they were young and vulnerable and I felt it would be a false security to think I could protect my children by simply teaching them to distrust all adults) Anyway people always compliment us on how our girls who are in their mid teens now talk so well with adults , and they seem to have a more highly developed sense of "creepers"(people they actually should stay away from) It all works well to ruin human relationships of all kinds, if the only safe and worthwhile relationships are with electronics....

  5. The irony is excellent as I read a typed page on my smart phone. I shall resist the urge to email it to the wife :)

  6. We have to train our children (meaning discipline if necessary) to not use technology as an excuse for being rude. As a Boy Scout leader, we do not allow electronic devices on camping trips. This is becoming increasingly difficult to enforce as the devices are small, and many parents think their 11 year old cannot live unless he has his cell phone in his pocket at all times. Yikes... do we really need this?

  7. I was in a small store once and had handed my debit card to the cashier to process. While she was holding my card the store's phone rang. She picked up the phone and instead of asking the caller to 'hold' she began searching around the store to see if the products the caller was asking about were there and answering the caller's other questions. Being a 'polite' person myself, I waited patiently (about ten minutes) for the cashier to return to finish serving me. If she had not had my card in her hand at the time, I would have walked out of the store, leaving the store without a sale.... Totally rude service. Yet I find it still happens every now and then.... dont you?

  8. Totally agree. I often will go out of my way to speak with the people working the check out stand. If it's a store I frequent regularly I try to go to the same checker.
    But I find that this issue cuts both ways, at one Sam's Club I shop at the young person checking the receipt on the way out just stares past you (I notice the older workers will engage you).
    As for the way British servants were treated a movie that exhibits that well is "Gosford Park", a murder mystery set in a wealthy British mansion. They treat the servants like furniture.

  9. I make it a point to get to know all the clerks and cashiers at the stores I frequent. I use coupons and to be rude or ignore them and expect them to deal with all of my many coupons is just plain nuts.
    The friendlier I am with them, the more willing they are to help me out with whatever I need. There is a clerk that is very nice at one of the stores and she goes above and beyond to help me when I am there because she knows I cannot hear and I have my hands full when my four children come along with me. Had I ignored her and chose to text while expecting her to deal with my groceries, I know I would not have the pleasant experience I do now. Even the people that work at the larger chain stores (like Target) know me and wave when they see me. That's a good feeling when someone smiles and waves at me because I walked in the door and they didn't grumble and think, "ugh, it's her, the text phone lady."

  10. I once, about 25 years ago, had an automated checker one of the first bar code readers tell me with a synthesized voice "thank you and have a nice day". I am afraid I just stood there with my mouth open until I said to the checker "and you have a good day too" I do think the irony was lost on her.

  11. Wow - this encompasses a lot of the thougthts my husband and I have concerning our children. We have 7 - one in college, one just graduated from high school, and then the rest under 13. We have lived in a "town" environment for over 5 years, and have seen how it has spoiled our older two children.

    To understand, my husband grew up in the Alaska bush, ran a 40-mile trapline at 13 and spent his summers logging from 13 until he moved away at 16. To say he was independent and could take care of himself in any circumstance and survive would be an understatement. Our oldest two children don't know how to do much else besides text and do stuff on the computer because that was where we had to be, and was all that there was for them to do where we are. Our 3rd oldest child has an I-pod (which she bought with her own money)to which she stays glued to for hours.

    We are able to move this summer, and will not have TV, smartphones, and only occasional internet. We will be traveling, and eventually homesteading. The goal is to disengage the kids from the devices, teach them something, and engage them with family and nature, because the devices are insidious in how they suck away time and personality.

  12. But, but .... That is when I read your blog.



    Terry T

  13. I'm on a similar bandwagon. If I need to make/take a rare cell phone call at Costco, I'll likely either pull me and my cart over in a non-busy aisle and do my talking, or slowly trundle down a slow aisle while doing my talking.

    On the flipside though, I have several young children. We don't get out of the house once, let alone several times a day - between mealtimes and naptimes and regular household needs, we don't get out much more than for milk pickup and swim lessons (sometimes church if I got more than 2-4 hours of sleep the night before). My only way sometimes to keep up with some of my friends, IRL and far away (like a cousin across the Atlantic for instance) is email/facebook because my kids are those that once you answer the phone they try to turn into banshees because they sense my attention isn't fully on them. It's gotten better with the older ones, but still a work in progress with the little ones.

  14. I think that if you come to a place where you have to ask if it is okay to treat someone disrespectfully or not even worthy of a response, being busy is the least of your problems.-miss georgia

  15. I'll be showing my age here, but I remember when I was a young child and our phone was a "party line". For those younger than I, that is a line that is shared by 2 or more families. Well, we shared ours with a good Catholic family with 14 children, some of whom I went to school with. For all of us, the rule was the phone was a tool to be used for very specific purposes. We were not allowed to give out our phone number. We could call a friend, but only to make arrangements to actually spend time together - short, sweet and to the point conversations.

    My Mom was a lovely person who had a knack of making everyone she met comfortable. Technology was the up and coming thing (think moving from black and white to color to a BETA VCP - but Mom never believed that technology should replace what was important. She taught us that treating people with decency and respect was not just the Golden Rule, but the law in HER household. It stuck. And it continues to stick with my own - now adult - children.

    When my children were growing up we only had one phone, in my bedroom. Funny how short my children's phone conversations were with their friends. (Privacy is great, but not a given in the household I grew up in, or the one my kids grew up in!)

    These days, my I and my children are appalled and amazed at how decent people become obliviously rude to the world around them when they have a cell phone. When my youngest was 13 and we were at a restaurant she politely turned around and told the gentleman behind us that she really didn't want to hear about his sexual escapades and to please take his conversation elsewhere. How is that a 13 year old can recognize such simple etiquette when an adult can't? It has to go back to lessons learned early in life, but learned in such a way as to be capable of applying these lessons to a rapidly changing world. Basic etiquette and decency should not change, whether you are sharing a party line or have a cell phone available for your personal use. Thank goodness there are still people out there that believe this fact.

  16. When I go to the supermarket, the cleks in the produce department tell me what is particularly good or steer me in the direction of a real bargain. Why?--I have learned their names and address them as such. I also know how one of the checker's husband is doing with his diabetes. Again it is because I have shown a degree of interest that makes her feel comfortable telling me something she feels a need to share. I also shared the story of the carpal tunnel problem of another checker. I try to be patient with trainee checkers and baggers. I smile at all the employees. They are there to help me and they deserve my courtesy. I might add that I always get excellent service.

  17. I agree with Ms. Turkle. I think it is beyond rude when people talk or text on their phone in the checkout line.

    Too many people use technology as a way to be rude. One of the blogs I used to follow was deleted because of rude people.

  18. I forbid cellphone usage during classroom time.
    I dislike the automatronic replacements used for real human interaction. Much is said by a persons body language and their facial expressions that even words don't capture. How can we develop intimacy with our loved ones if the majority of our communications are emails and texting messages? We're not!

    I have begun to witness the uncaring attitudes and avoidant actions of some people when someone has fallen seriously ill or had an accident in a public place. They walk around the person like they are inanimate. In fact, they are apt to be more caring and assistive to an injured animal instead of another human!

    Turn off the gadgets, get rid of the TV, and stop using the phone to talk to a neighbor who lives down the street!

    Let's get back to enjoying others face to face conversations.
    We just might learn something valuable about ourselves, and them too.

    Even if you don't agree with the person you're conversing with....


  19. You're right on, Patrice, and such excellent comments by your readers, too! I think this all started when companies began using answer machines instead of people to respond to their customers. You know, dial a 2 for this and a 3 or 4 or whatever for that. And when they call their customers, they almost always use recordings. We just hang up. If they want to talk to US, they'd better have a human do the calling!

    My wife works in a bakery in a grocery store in our town. She says people often walk up to the counter with a cell phone glued to their ear. No one waits on them until they put down the phone. My wife and fellow employees aren't being rude, the customer is, because they never know if the person is talking to them or who's on the phone. Often the customer will wave at them for service, and they politely tell the person they'll wait on him/her when they're done with their call, saying something like, "We don't want to interfere with your call. Let us know when you're ready." It's too bad we have to do this to those who see nothing wrong with being rude, but common courtesy is a two-way street! --Fred & Deb in AZ

  20. When I'm in a store that has a self-check option, I use it -- not to be rude, but I don't like "small talk" or "chit chat" with strangers. It's fine if a checker asks "how are you", or if I found everything I was looking for, and I am always polite, but I don't want to answer questions about what I'm doing this weekend or swap recipes or discuss the price of tea in China.

    On the flip side, I do not use my cell phone when I'm involved in a business transaction. That's what voicemail is for! If a call is important, the caller can leave a message and be called back after a few minutes, when I have checked my voicemail. The phone is there for MY convenience, not the convenience of those who are calling me!

    It's a "Golden Rule" kind of thing -- I wouldn't stand for a checker taking a personal phone call while ringing up my order, after all.

  21. Ironically, all our comments are through the same de-humanizing electronic medium! HA HA!

    Steve Davis
    Anchorage, Alaska

  22. This is a great topic.

    I hadn't thought much about it before making my first visit to our daughter in London. Checkers there sit on a chair. They are glued to the register and almost never even LOOK at their customer, much less give (or respond to) a friendly greeting!

    My first experience was such a shock; that these people were so callous but still had jobs! Daughter says they can always spot tourists, cause tourists actually greet the checkers - anticipating a response. Daughter sometimes still attempts, but rarely gets a reply.

    Imagine..., not even eye contact! They check the groceries and announce the total as they stick out their hand. Change is given without a glance. It is automated without the electric cord. Shameful.

    Americans can do better. Please consider His mandate to be kind and considerate of others.

    and "Have a nice evening."

  23. I think it's an addiction. The free market has naturally developed things that human beings want. Convincing people that excessive amounts are harmful...is an uphill battle.

    It's tough to argue with anyone who thinks cell phones, email, and texting are just more technological advancements that make our lives easier. I often get the response, "It's no different from the telegraph or the telephone. Would you go back and uninvent those?"

    We can feel in our guts that this isolative technology is harming us, but articulating it in a fashion that will get people to actually give up or temper that technology is difficult. It makes us feel so good and it's socially acceptable. Why _should_ I give it up?

  24. For almost 20 years I was a RN (I am now retired to my family farm) Nurses also tend to ignore politeness. The art of nursing used to be covered with kindness and empathy. Now it is so busy with too many patients they run in a, do what they have to and run out. For 3 years I managed a medical/surgical unit and an ICU. I demanded of my nurses to call each patient by their name (not the appy in 302). The patiens would always telll me I was "sooo nice" and such a "great nurse" Why??? Because I called them by their name, if they could not relax I rubbed their back, I made sure their needs were met with a smile. Society today has bvecome callous and rude. People will cut in front of you in line, they are rude drivers, they ignore the service personnel (like nurses, checkers, etc) and then get mad at them if something is not perfect. For example the lady in room 302 wants her pain medicine and the aide answers the light but alkl the nurses are doing a code blue on the next room over. They are trying to save a mans life but the lady is 302 is getting mad and yelling because she has not gotten her medicine even though the aide told her why. She feels her nurse should forget doing CPR on the man and go get her a tylenol. That is rude, uncaring and callous.
    Yes talk to the checker ask him how his day has been. Be polite Your chit chat may just make a really horrible day better for them. The smart phone will still be in your purse when you get done in the line. For the lady that has no time. Make it... Stop at the park on your way to the grocery store, relax and do your messages... Then go to the store and be polite. That is what has happened to our country everyone has forgotten their manners!!! Our leaders are the worst.....

  25. Excuse my language, but I feel strongly on this matter:
    Fuck small talk

    It's the most inane, useless thing in the world. If you need to constantly talk about the weather or some other bullshit nobody actually cares to talk about (or the most worthless "how are you?" nobody actually cares how you are except real friends), just to get an go boost ("yes I am being noticed! I am a person!") then just stop it. Why do you need others to verify your existence all the time? Don't you have enough self-worth and self-identification to keep your ego together without someone talking nothing to you? I want that crap cut out. I mean, I understand that retail/service workers have the most thankless jobs in the world. People treat them like trash. So I am nice and reply to their company-mandated greetings and play nice even though I think it's the most stupid thing. But with my friends and everyone I don't HAVE to "play social" with, we have the unspoken rule: only say what you mean, don't ask things you don't care about, be honest, be real. They're not going to ask me "how are you?" unless they're prepared to chat for 20 minutes about our day in detail. Because we actually care. Honestly, I really don't care about a lot of people in this world on a personal level, and talking is personal.

    Besides, what's with the wide-spread shaming of technology by many people. My biggest pet peeve is when a person has an internet friend, and someone of course comes along and judges. "But it's not face to face so it's not REAL. They could be ANYBODY." So what does it matter that they could be anybody? Remember pen pals? SAME EXACT THING. Does it matter that they may not be telling every detail truthfully? Does it really matter that they might be someone else? Why should that matter? If you're friends with them, you're friends with them. If they're nicer than the real-world people around you, why does the rest matter? Seriously, why is "face to face" so important? I'm not even getting INTO the fact that people can video chat in real time. I mean hell, my best friends? Through the internet. My bestest friend? Was friends for five years and then we became a couple. Three years later and we were married. Happily going strong for years - and we never video chatted before meeting, never voice chatted even. So what's the big to-do about internet friendships being so "terrible"? Why limit yourself to the people in your town, the few choices of nasty people you have, when you can talk to billions? Why shrink your world view and be ignorant?

    The internet lets you contact people that are actually worth knowing. Don't be ignorant about it.