Indifference: Too many people than I can count lately, have mastered a communication style that is foreign to me. They simply choose to ignore direct communication and not reply. They don’t call people back, nor return emails, or even texts. Instead, they leave people like my husband and I, hanging, waiting in ambivalent purgatory while our imaginations wreak havoc with our insecurities. Instead of saying to us something like “No, sorry, we are not interested, but please contact us again in the future, or perhaps try this other contact,” or “I am not happy with what you are asking from me, so let’s figure out a better way,” they just avoid having these uncomfortable conversations altogether, and don’t call. The snub is intended to be the new “no”, and this new way of saying “no” to people is a very negative type of communication. I am always reminded of Elie Wiesel when I encounter this sort of apathy in human relationships–apathy that promotes a non-response: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Rejection: Many companies have removed the old courtesies of saying, “No, we don’t want you at this time.” It has resulted in eager and hopeful applicants no longer even receiving the infamous PFO (Please F— Off) letters that tell them politely that their information submitted was received, but not successful. When my husband was off work and applying for different positions, he was shocked at how many companies did not acknowledge the receipt of his applications; nor did they send out rejection letters; and even when they were interested, kept him hanging, sometimes for weeks before informing him of his successful hire. We have both been disillusioned over the last few months of encountering experience after experience of companies; social connections and even friends and family not contacting us back after our initial efforts, even when they say that they will do so.
Break-ups in relationships now look more like a blocked Facebook friendships or an “unfriending” or the “restricting” of each other. Some people have told me that rather than being told face-to-face that they are no longer wanted in a relationship, they are texted. This type of passive behaviour is hurtful and leaves people wondering what has happened to make them so unworthy of a call-back. I agree with Samuel Johnson who famously states “I would rather be attacked than go un-noticed.” As busy as people get (and we are all extremely busy), it bothers me that these social niceties of making time to stop and respond to communication–the good, the bad and the ugly communication, have started to disappear. The empathy required to spare people the waiting and wondering seems to have become a thing of the past.
Social Graces: I remember being brought up to reply to people. My mother would sit me down in front of the thank you cards, and expect me to write to people who had given me music scholarships, or to appreciate my aunts and uncles who had sent me gifts for holidays and birthdays. If a date called me, even an unwanted one, my parents would remind me to call him back. I was taught to say “you’re welcome” when someone thanked me. My mother modelled the same behaviour and always called people who had hosted dinners parties, to thank them the next day, and remind them of how much they were appreciated. Phoning people within 24 hours was an expectation of my family and of the companies with which I worked. If I did not contact people back in my line of work, I lost their respect and their business, or raised their ire enough to call my supervisor. It was simply not tolerated.
Waiting and Waiting: Now in the generation of social media, and automated industry communication management systems, people (even paying clients) are expected to wait…and wait, and sometimes hear nothing back at all. And worse yet, there is no recourse for this type of behaviour. We can go elsewhere to another company operating in exactly the same way. If we get frustrated and ask to talk to the manager, it is likely that the manager is too busy responding to like-minded calls to get back to us. Recently, my husband dealt for almost two months with an insurance company through a trail of missed emails and paperwork; unfinished tasks warranting follow-up phone calls to calling managers in absolute frustration. After three months, I was finally added to his insurance policy and notified by a letter in the mail with no explanation or reply to our questions.
Difficult Conversations: It is extremely disillusioning to be old enough to know that there is a better way to communicate that results in positive relationships and exceptional business partnerships, but to instead watch dysfunctional types of communication systems emerging in so many places that matter, like where people are dealing with our money, our minds and our bodies–and our children. I’ve seen and experienced better communication processes and know that it can be done in families, relationships and businesses. There is something very admirable about people who say what they mean, and do what they say. They pick up the damn phone and have the courage to call us back, knowing full well that the conversation might not be easy. However, most skilled communicators know how to diffuse difficult situations quickly and put all parties at ease. It is a social art that people are not learning how to do because they have allowed technology to replace their social integrity, or they have become so busy that they have excused themselves from having to care. Regardless of my beliefs in this regard, I keep stepping into the rabbit hole of answering machines; no replies and no return calls and emails. It is a quagmire of “what do I do next?” Are they saying “no” to me, or what is happening here?
Solutions: The key, I presume, is to be very clear at the outset of any communication of the expectation of a reply. It is best, I am learning, to be pre-emptively assertive. “I appreciate doing business with someone who gets back to me in 24 hours. Is this how you operate?” Or, “I am not an email correspondent client. I prefer phone calls. Can I count on this from you?” I reward the behaviour of those who take the time to communicate clearly and effectively in a timely way. Getting a reply to some unanswered questions is a valuable commodity that I feel is worth spending my time and money on in the business world. My husband and I are both learning to walk away from the business of those who do not.
In my personal relationships, I am starting to hang around with people who know the art of give and take through our human interactions and compassion for each other. I avoid people who leave me hanging for too long, or communicate with me in short disconnected sound bytes of communication and time, and with little depth. I am moving toward the light of being with people who validate and respect me enough to keep in touch in rich and meaningful ways. I value people who look me in the eye and take time for real conversations. These are the engaged and courageous people who know how to truly be with people and to experience the reward of understanding them, and in turn, themselves. In initiating and replying to communication respectfully, we make each other visible in a potentially isolating, lonely and invisible world.