For many years, if you’d telephoned and missed my journalism idol Chuck Stone, his voice mail message stated, “Please pardon this electronic impersonality, but I am currently in absentia...”
I liked that one so much that I stole it and put it on mine.
That became embarrassing if someone called and missed us both, because they immediately knew I’d Milli Vinillied my hero’s greeting and message, along with his bowtie and – back when I had enough hair – his flattop fade.
Now, apparently, others have stolen the idea – not of the voice mail, but of electronic impersonality. Break out your calculators, folks, and tally up how many massively mailed text messages or electronic greeting cards – ecards, Egads! – you received this Christmas and holiday season.
Before you do it again, let me assure you: blitzing the cellphones and emails of friends and acquaintances with the electronic endearments of a mass and massively impersonal text message emits the same emotional warmth as writing “Merry Christmas” in the snow with the contents of a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew.
In “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” after the eponymous star laments the over-commercialization of the holiday – that animated masterpiece was written in 1965, remember – his friend Linus tells him he’s being a wet blanket:
“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful holiday like Christmas and turn it into a problem... Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
A friend of mine, when I expressed my view on ecards and mass text messages, expressed his: “Dude, you’ve become Mr. Wilson.”
Oh, so you think it would be a stretch for even ol’ Charlie Brown or Dennis the Menace’s eternally ill-natured neighbor to take an act as innocuous as sending ecards or text messages wishing merriment and make it seem like a bad thing? You probably also think that, well, at least it means someone was thinking of you, right?
Not necessarily, they aren’t. Several times I replied to one of those texts with a gleeful “Merry Christmas to you, too,” only to receive as a response, “Who is this?”
So, are people out there merely pressing “Send” to people they don’t even know, to someone who merely knows someone who knows someone they know?
Appears that way.
The paper greeting card industry, which is reporting massive financial losses, brought some of its woes onto itself: Have you seen the cost of a greeting card lately or tried to find a birthday card for a 7-feet-tall, multi-racial, ambidextrous, LGBTQ Star Wars fanatic?
We are all, of course, too busy for personal expressions of sentiment, to actually say “Merry Christmas” or whatever, but wouldn’t a handwritten note, a telephone call, even a note tied to the leg of an asthmatic carrier pigeon leave more of an emotional imprint than a blindly sent mass text message?
Although it may be a contributing factor, money can’t be the sole reason people seem content to just mash “Send” as opposed to going to the mall, picking a card and envelope, signing it, licking the envelope and sticking it in the mail – or even just picking up the phone and talking.
Here’s my theory of just when social interactions started becoming less sociable.
We began losing something as a society the day the phone company stopped using live operators and went computerized. At Leak Street School, principal J.C. Watkins actually taught us in assembly the proper way to dial the telephone – let the rotary ring go after dialing – and to speak with an operator.
“Hello, could you give me the number for Jomie Jackson’s Taxicab Service?” followed by “Thank you very much.”
Once the live operator was made obsolete, though, greetings became merely an impediment to comprehension, and the only things required were just the clearly enunciated facts, ma’am: no greeting, no salutation.
Most importantly, there was no one there afterward to whom you could say “Thank you.”
The masonry mortar of good manners that holds up the wall of civility was chipped away even further during the 1980s, when people started putting up signs warning “Don’t even think about parking here.”
Remember those gratuitously bellicose signs that were a vexation to the spirit?
I do, and I didn’t even have a car throughout much of the ‘80s. The first time I saw one, at an apartment complex behind the shopping center in Rockingham, my first thought was, “My, that’s unnecessarily contentious.”
Human interaction reached another nadir when people started installing those talking automobile alarms that warned, “You are too close to the car: back up, #$%!@&.”
You’d sometimes get that message even if you meant the car no harm and were merely brushing past en route to Arby’s for that five-roast-beef-sandwiches-for-five-dollars special and were unaware of the car’s existence until it barked at you.
Ever wonder how many people decided to get really close to the car after being insulted so obnoxiously?
You know what, though? Back up: you’re too close could also be the real message people are sending when they unleash with the tap of a keystroke scores of impersonal season’s greetings to “friends” and strangers alike.
Just as certainly as we will be watching and loving “A Charlie Brown Christmas” 50 years hence, cultural anthropologists will date the decline of modern civility – if not civilization – to those three seemingly unrelated pop culture touchstones: angry car alarms, jerk-ish “No parking” signs and impersonal mass electronic wishes of holiday merriment.