Next time someone asks you how you are, say something outrageous, but say it casually with the same offhand intonation as you would if you answered, “fine, just great.” Try “I have chilblains,” or maybe “I’m leaking from several openings.” “I just invented light,” might work. The exercise is meant to see if anyone really is listening. One of my students, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, was nonplussed when first she arrived in the US and people asked her how she was. She tried to answer, but usually they were gone before she finished her first sentence. Apparently where she is from when you ask someone, “How are you?” you find out. A physician I knew in Cincinnati—not mine, I’m glad to say—routinely would say to people he greeted, “How are you? Fine! Fine! Fine!” without waiting for even one word of response from the other. Usually he was walking away before the greeted person knew she had been greeted and ignored.
While it’s true that inquiries after one’s health in the US are routines, verbal handshakes not really meant to begin communication, any more than a physical handshake forestalls a wrestling match, we have reached a day when customs and rules of interpersonal communication are changing more rapidly than our ability to adjust to them. A writer complained in the New York Times about the death of courtesy because people no longer respond appropriately to the request, R.S.V.P. His article brought a spate of letters from others, replies that ranged from a courteous translation of “get a life,” to elegant pieces bemoaning the defeat of decency. Sexting is another innovation forcing us to renegotiate—or maybe re-comprehend—the rules of communication, the practice of sending wireless phone text messages that include risqué pictures, perhaps of oneself, perhaps of another. Should such practices be prosecuted if they include photos of minors taken and sent by those very minors? What is the proper way for a girl to thank her boyfriend for a cell phone photo of his genitals? A larger question: what is the proper etiquette for cell phones when dealing with others?
However, is anyone really listening, anyway? And are we really speaking? Although we are wired and wireless and connected almost as well as hip Asians and Europeans, does all this connection bring us any closer to real communication? Do we think we communicate but suffer instead from failure to communicate? Such failure vexes us especially if entertain the mistaken impression that since we have so many communication devices , we do, in fact, communicate, even communicate what we think we are saying to others. But there’s an axiom among folk who study communication that you cannot not communicate. If no one listens to what we think we are saying, then what are they hearing, or what are we actually communicating? If much verbal social interchange has become as meaningless as the “high-how-are-you-fine-fine-fine” greeting, then what actually do we tell one another or learn from one another? Have we created an autistic society? We go through the motions of communication and have at hand the best in-touch appliances, but we only imitate intentional meaning and comprehension. We are really good at hardware but something is missing in the software.
It doesn’t have to be. Yesterday somehow—it was horrifying—my Blackberry battery almost died. The indicator became a bright red outline. I don’t know why. It has never happened before; I pray it never happens again. Just in case, I turned off the device to save precious battery life. Yet there I was in Uptown Charlotte searching on foot for a place, unable to call for help and—again, terrible to say—unable to receive e-mail, text messages, surf the web, or reach out to anyone, anyone at all. I couldn’t even use my GPS. What could I do? What did I do? I was reduced to old technology. I walked into a restaurant. Surely the proprietor would know the neighborhood. “Where is Trader Joe’s,” I asked. He told me, and I smiled and thanked him. When I got to Trader Joe’s I could see the car of the woman I was meeting across the street in a parking lot. I spoke to her. We had a conversation. I did not ask her how she was and she did not ask me. We drove to a meeting where, for almost two hours, my Blackberry could not beep even once tempting me to withdraw from real interpersonal exchange into the autistic thumbing of my touch screen. Then I got a ride back to my car and spoke to the other occupants. Only when I reached my car did I plug in my Blackberry and turn it on. I had missed twenty-seven messages but no calls, and I had survived. I drove home, relieved, put a movie in the DVD player and watched Adam one more time.