Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google?
Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?
You cannot waste something that has no value. The attention and time of people who are offended by receiving a text message or email that has the intent of demonstrating respect and caring are people whose time and attention have no value. Therefore there is nothing to waste.
Then there is voice mail, another impolite way of trying to connect with someone. Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages. “Hi, this is so-and-so….” In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello. E-mail, too, leaves something to be desired, with subject lines and “hi” and “bye,” because the communication could happen faster by text. And then there are the worst offenders of all: those who leave a voice mail message and then e-mail to tell you they left a voice mail message.
Politeness and manners are the ways in which societies inculcate the assumption of the value of strangers, the presumption that they are worthy of respect and kindness. At their best, manners remind us that the bellboy has a life of perfectly equal value to that of the hedge fund manager he attends to. More, they remind us that not one of us is indispensable, that the death or disappearance of any individual never upsets the balance of society very much, and that none of us are mourned for long. Manners emerged from wisdom; Mr. Bilton, being of a type, is unfamiliar with the concept.
My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.”
My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.My own mother has been dead since 1989, my father since 1997. And yet I feel lucky to have enjoyed a fully human relationship with both of them for the short time I had them. Mr. Bilton, meanwhile, apparently regards his parents as the human equivalent of a pop-up ad or a sponsored tweet from Dominos. This passage seems to me a failure of Mr. Bilton's own desire for concision; simply writing "I have traded everything good in life for empty monuments to my own self-regard" saves him a few characters.
Now, with Google and online maps at our fingertips, what was once normal can be seen as uncivilized — like asking someone for directions to a house, restaurant or office, when they can easily be found on Google Maps.
I once asked a friend something easily discovered on the Internet, and he responded with a link to lmgtfy.com, which stands for Let Me Google That For You.Human beings ask for things of each other because we are limited, fallible creatures. We give to each other mostly because it is right to give but also because we recognize in ourselves the same limitations that compels others to ask us for help. Sometimes the things that we are asked for are little things, like our time, our full attention, our regard. We extend them, not in spite of their inefficiency but because of their inefficiency, because the purpose of human effort is to become more human; it is not to save more time for the least human parts of our lives. Once you recognize human society as a series of apologies, a long chain of forgiveness that extends from each of us to each other, you will never mistake being asked for a tiny courtesy as itself a tiny matter. Nor will you allow your self-obsession to grow to such a level that you mistake being asked for something with an imposition; what about you is so grand that could come to feel imposed upon?
In the age of the smartphone, there is no reason to ask once-acceptable questions: the weather forecast, a business phone number, a store’s hours. But some people still do. And when you answer them, they respond with a thank-you e-mail.
In an age of human tolerance, there is no reason to suppose that being asked a question is not acceptable, and more, no standing on which to believe that you are such an advanced creature that you can assess what is acceptable and what isn't.
“I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost,” said Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of Cultivated Wit, 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.”
Mr. Thurston said he encountered another kind of irksome communication when a friend asked, by text message, about his schedule for the South by Southwest festival. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” he said. “The answer would be so long. There’s no way I’m going to type out my schedule in a text.”
Mr. Thurston is clearly in need of a few facts, but perhaps these aren't as easily Googled. So let me supply them for him. Mr. Thurston: no one is remotely as impressed with you as you are with yourself. No one else mistakes your time for a precious commodity. Self-regard does not make you important, nor does a chronic overestimation of your own value actually make you valuable. You are not the cosmos. Most of the people around you are laughing at you, all the time. They are right to laugh, because you have violated a basic social compact. You believe that what you want and value is more important than what others want and value. In fact, no one thinks much about what you want at all. Some of the best advice you can give: remember that the minute you leave a room, no one is thinking about you. Harsh, but necessary.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that in traditional societies, the young learn from the old. But in modern societies, the old can also learn from the young. Here’s hoping that politeness never goes out of fashion, but that time-wasting forms of communication do.
"Learning" is a powerful word, a misunderstood one. I'm sure Mr. Bilton spends much of his time absorbing little facts, churning through the deracinated information that the internet spreads out endlessly, shorn of context or curriculum, just true enough to be mistaken for knowledge. Perhap this is how it has to be. Maybe Bilton is the wave of the future. For myself, I don't think that there's anything to be done; the punishment for people like Mr. Bilton is living the life that they've endeavored to live. I'm sure their manic effort to degrade and destroy any genuinely human connection is proceeding on with great efficiency; I have no doubt they will reach that rarefied territory where there is nothing human at all on the other end of that well-loved smartphone. I picture him writing this piece in a dark apartment, face lit up with the sickly blue glow of his laptop, chattering away in the dark alone about all the people who have failed him.
You might find all of this harsh! I confess that I feel some vestigial guilt about it, some antique notion of kindness and compassion; it's the manners talking. But those are concerns for another era. The world ran out of time for such things.