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Has social media influenced human interaction – even at the local library?

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In the library, at the reserve shelves, I found myself standing next to a child of about six, as he went through the books one by one. When he got to the end of the shelf, he hadn’t found a book reserved in his family name, so he started again.

Patience, thy name is Rosemary: so I waited for the kid to sort through once more, but thought it might be worthwhile to register that I was there, standing next to him. If you can’t feel part of a community and society in a library, where can you?

I was careful not to get too close, as I’m mindful of a debate in this particular community about how people think it’s fine to pat children in the street, and they really ought not, according to those parents who are teaching their offspring about their rights.

I used to smile at children whose meandering dashes down the footpath caused me to swerve or stop or otherwise avoid collision, but I’ve cut that out, in case it offends.

In the library, waiting for my turn at the reserve shelf, I lapsed.

“Straightening up the shelf, are you?” I said, quietly, as the boy began his third fingering of the lineup of books.

No answer. Indeed, not even a glance in my direction.

What puzzles me is when it seems undesirable to exercise one of human beings’ miraculous abilities, which is that of communicating.

Call me recalcitrant: “Oh, you can’t talk eh?” I said, quietly and gently, standing there right next to this small boy; then (call me impatient), “No words? Don’t know how to speak?” I added with a materteral chuckle. (It’s the much less-used equivalent of “avuncular” apparently.)

Success! The child finally turned to stare at me reproachfully, and blurted, “Yes, I can!”

To which I replied, “Very good.”

His father arrived about then, and, what do you know! Behaved pretty much the same as the kid, sort of occupying the space in front of the shelf without so much as a glance right or left, and certainly no acknowledgement that anyone else was in the vicinity waiting to get access.

Of course this all hardly matters, seems inconsequential, in a world where the baiting-game of personal abuse has become part of the daily news cycle.

However, what if it’s connected?

We are told that people will say things on social media they’d never say to someone’s face, so if we aren’t “facing” people in everyday interactions, that adds to the impression there’s a wall between what we say and who we say it about.

There’s also less time now to listen. Opinions, once formed, are solid blocks to be hurled out on the internet and “debate” programs. “Tell us what you think” the poor old ABC implores, merrily supporting WB Yeats’ dreadful conclusion that “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Everyone has the right to go about their business unimpeded by meddlesome others, so the child and his father in the library have every right to stand as long as they like talking about their own needs in front of a shelf of books where they expected to find what they wanted.

What puzzles me is when it seems undesirable to exercise one of human beings’ miraculous abilities, which is that of communicating.

So much is at stake when you say something to someone else, and doing so is probably not wise when you don’t really need to speak at all. But I cling to the notion that it’s worthwhile to try, as politeness, kindness, good humour and tolerance are all part of what’s at stake, and worth exercising.

Or, I suppose, we could just borrow a book and hope we get all that in reading.


5 responses to “Has social media influenced human interaction – even at the local library?

  1. This article just made me cringe. Better not smile, lest it offend! Come on.
    To say “straightening up the shelf, are we?” to anyone in this scenario seems passive aggressive at best. If you said that to me, I’d raise an eyebrow and make some sort of joke in reply, but think you were an idiot. To a six year old, why not something like “are you looking for something in particular, can I help or anything?”

    I get the premise of the article, if tired – social media is stripping us of the ability to communicate and engage with each other. But really, nothing in this article gives the impression that you exercised any of the “politeness, kindness, good humour and tolerance” that you decry. I personally find that smiling at people, and just being nice and approachable elicits a similar kind of response.

  2. I couln’t agree more. I’ve wondered, for a long time, about why this situation exists. I walk my dog a couple of times each day, spending between 2 and 4 hours out, usually. We ‘meet’ or pass many people. It’s my habit to greet those I meet and I do so. My dog is well mannered and under control so he’s no impediment. However, so often, the response to my greeting is a stony silence or even what, to me, seems an irritated or even hostile glare.

    This phenomenon has become so common to me that now, when I meet someone who responds cheerfully, with a smile or a nod, at least, of acknowledgment or that very rare, friendly verbal response, I’m actually surprised and warmed by it.

    I’m not sure how or why this type of remoteness has arisen but it is certainly there. In fact, as well as occurring in casual meetings, I’m surprised at how often this characteristic is displayed when I go to purchase something from a store. Only too often I’m met with stony glances, silence, or if I dare to ask a question, an irritated response that is so tangible it seems that the temperature drops by several degrees. I wonder that some of these sales-people, particularly in small, self-owned stores, can actually stay in business, yet I not that when I’ve spoken to others about this phenomenon, many seem not to have noticed or to dismiss it as unimportant. Often, I’m gently ribbed by friends who see it as ‘an old fashioned quirk’ or my British heritage.

    Well, perhaps or, in fact, probably, I am past my use-by date. Still, I don’t remember that it was this way a few decades ago, but maybe I just didn’t notice. What my instinct tells me is something different. I think that, as a generalisation, it is true to say that we are losing not only the will to be sociable and polite, but also the ability to do so.

    I feel sad, and to a degree, stressed about it for I think it is part of a greater malaise stemming from what seems to me to be an increasingly materialistic and competitive culture where life “success” is about position, wealth and celebrity and in which social graces are cast aside as a waste of time or unnecessary. Please don’t take this the wrong way for I’m not talking of affectation. I was born a Yorkshire baby and of a relatively impoverished working class background, so I certainly wasn’t raised with airs and graces.

    However, it’s interesting to me that, although where I lived, the vast majority of people lived in terrace houses that were known as “2 up, 2 downs” because they only had 4 rooms, were two storey, & had stairs running up from the front door. Some had a large closet size room built on the back which served as a kitchen and provided a door to the back yard of maybe 2 x 3 metres, which would have a privy in one corner. There were usually no bathrooms, just a large rectangular ceramic sink in that built on ‘kitchen’, which is where you’d wash. Why am I relating this? I’m doing so because the interesting thing about it and its connection with this topic is that, almost to a one, the families who lived in these dwellings would keep the ‘front room’ for special occasions or special visitors. It would be the only room in the house to have any real comfort and would usually house the “best” crockery and maybe the odd specially treasured piece of ceramic ware or family heirloom.

    At the time, I simply accepted that such is how it was. Looking back, I find it remarkable that a family, living in a rude 4 room dwelling, would keep one of those rooms unused save perhaps for half a dozen times a year and, inevitably, those times would be when they were providing hospitality to others. There was a civility and respect that had no hypocrisy about it, just a natural generosity and willingness to share their best with others.

    Can I imagine anyone doing that now? Can you?

    1. I can’t help but disagree with both scenarios you discuss. On the first – your experience is so different to mine. Perhaps it’s where we both live, but in the last 2 years I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around my neighbourhood (and beyond) with my baby and dogs. While on maternity leave and after returning back to work part time, I have felt really connected, because I tend to meet and chat with various people all over the place. My son and I have made lots of friends and acquaintances at local parks, cafes, library, pool.. as a complete introvert and homebody, I have actually felt myself thinking on a number of occasions that I somehow lead a very social life these days. I have met more people in the last few years, and made more friends, than ever before in my life. I realize that this relates to being away from work and having more time to meander around – but it demonstrates that it’s not necessarily the universal situation that nobody interacts anymore. I hear and read people relate things like this and it always feels to me like glorifying the good old days, and bemoaning the state of the world today. And it’s just not necessarily the reality, at least not everywhere, for everybody.

      On the ‘good room’ topic – I too grew up in a house with a ‘front room’ that was hardly ever used. With a good set of plates, placemats, tablecloth, special table, etc. And I’m 31 years old. It always seemed like a total waste of space to me, and there’s no way I’d reserve an entire room for use on extremely rare occasions, for special visitors. I can’t imagine any of my friends now doing this, either. True. But this isn’t a sign that we aren’t generous or willing to share our best with each other – we just spend time with each other in different ways. And eat off the same plates, without the same ceremony. I’d rather spare my friends the time and effort of washing a tablecloth and help them wash up.

  3. I agree with you Rosemary. Kids are a lot ruder than they used to be, and so are their parents. Also, where does this idea that sarcasm is bad come from (apparently it’s now illegal somewhere in the world!)? How pathetic! I’m pleasantly sarcastic to my little grand-daughters quite a lot, and they both think it’s a hoot. I think it’s actually useful too, because it develops a sense of irony (which god knows school English doesn’t!). And thank you for materteral. I’ve never seen or heard it before in my life, and will have to check. But why would you lie?

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