The new rudeness is silence.
I first became aware of this during the dot.com bust of 2000, when I was working as a marketing executive for an internet software start-up in San Francisco. This was one of those companies, still very much in evidence, that was run by men under thirty years old whose background was in the computer sciences and the internet. They worked eighty-hour weeks regularly. Their favorite cuisine was cold pizza and warm Coke, and they were barely capable of language. They dressed like skateboarders.
Few had any manners of any kind. The founder and CEO of the company for which I was working – as a marketing executive responsible for selling the product to Fortune 500 companies -- was a young German who had cut his business teeth in Silicon Valley, at one of the very large computer equipment companies. He had no personality, but he had invented what appeared to me to be a very good software product. The trouble was that his rudeness, characterized by his silence in response to the pesky questions of employees, and his silence during sales or marketing presentations -- especially those that required him to appear before clients – added so much weight to the effort to sell the product that he finally had to hire a director of marketing.
He himself, it was clear, resented having to direct his company’s marketing effort. It was beneath him. Marketing, as he so often confidently averred, was for the “wordsmiths”, and you were urged to understand that wordsmiths were gabby, obfuscating lightweights of little importance. Guys who were actually trained in marketing, in other words. His engineering prowess proved his real worth – at least to him -- and selling the product was a waste of his time. He would punish clients who would ask him to explain the product, with disinterest and silence. This put a burden on those like me, who were working with giant corporate entities, because this was also a man who insisted on being brought along on sales calls. I hated taking him with me. He was a bump on a log with a German accent, itching with resentment as though sales were a form of burning, crusted shingles.
Many such have made millions in their start-up business endeavors, and I, who had devoted a career to working in more corporate kinds of business, was smitten with the idea of stock options and the probable millions that I would make too. So, putting my suits and neckties in the closet, I too took to levis, although I drew the line at cold pizza.
I retained one other habit that I could not shake. I had good manners.
I always returned phone calls. I was considerate of my clients and their real wishes. When I Emailed someone, I used full sentences, full words, full thoughts. To this day, my Emails are like old-fashoned letters. Above all, when asked for an opinion, I gave it, expecting that, since my opinion was being sought, it would be considered. The director of human resources, a young latina with a picture of her baby daughter on her desk, once thanked me for my “courtliness” when complaining about a mistake on one of my paychecks.
But I often felt that my manners rendered me beneath contempt by those who ran this company. I was considered old-fashioned, too genteel for my own good, and not decisive enough. My manners were responded to with impatient silence, as though I would never, ever get to the point. All this by these bright young men who had no real education even though they had degrees from places like Stanford and MIT, who could make their way through mind-numbing binary codes with ease but seemed to have never read a novel. . . or much of anything, who seemed convinced, as they drove away in their new, company-leased Porche Boxsters, that the new world was theirs and that such overly considerate concerns as mine were, in one of their favorite descriptive phrases, “bullshit”. Or, even worse, Democratic Party liberalism.
I left that company, the last I ever worked for, six months before it went under to the tune of sixteen million dollars in venture capital investment. The CEO disappeared to New Zealand the day after the failure, I expect in discreet silence, and as far as I know has not visited the United States since.
Once I left business, I figured that this new rudeness would also be left behind. It was a business habit, based on the emotional ravages caused by involvement in a marketplace that, as of this writing on September 30, 2008, is tanking in a morass of corporate leadership incompetence, upper echelon thievery and intentional management lying, all presided over by the Republican Party. But at the time, I didn’t imagine that the new rudeness would ever inform a personal relationship, where being well-mannered was, I thought, a real plus.
But no. I’ve come to understand a subtle variant of the new rudeness, that is not based on the need for business dominance, but rather is being accepted in social circles as the new way of being polite.
Here are a few instances. . . You issue an invitation to friends to join you for a weekend in the mountains, and they simply don’t respond.
You leave a voicemail asking someone to call you back, and he doesn’t. So you ask again, and he doesn’t, again.
A long-term friend no longer returns your voicemails, and will give no explanation for why other than a friendly avowal that there’s nothing wrong at all, followed by continuing long silence.
Or your friends EMail you, inviting you for a weekend in the mountains, you respond right away that you’d love to join them, “What can I bring?” etc., etc., and then there is no more information offered. The invitation is forgotten or ignored by the people who issued it, and the matter is never brought up again.
You have a non-profit charitable endeavor for which you are seeking funds and organizational help. An enthusiastic moneyed friend offers assistance and counsel, and when you meet with him a week or so later with questions -- and, God help you, a request for money -- he acts in a very amused, forthcoming way as though the first conversation never took place.
That’s the worst, when the silence is hidden behind a veil of smiling good will. Another instance of this is when you’ve called someone for an answer that you both realize you really need, to a question that you’ve left for that person in Emails and voicemails many times, and when she picks up the phone, she regales you with patronizing good humor and the thought that you’ve been on her mind many times recently. Then, as a kindly afterthought, she hurries to the answer to your question. With regard to your many messages, there is only silence.
Everyone acts as though there never was such a relationship, never such invitations, never such questions. Conversations are avoided. Understandings between you are shuffled beneath the rug, as are explanations, in the hope that no one will notice that nothing has happened. Silence reigns, the good manners that would enable a forthright conversation go out the window, and we arrive at the very summit of the new rudeness.
The 18th century British statesman Lord Chesterfield wrote that “manners must adorn knowledge, and smooth its way through the world.” I doubt that there are many in the United States now who would understand what Chesterfield was even talking about. That makes sense, because as another great statesman Fred Astaire observed, “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.” Especially in a society in which disaffection or disinterest is conveyed by silence -- by nothing -- knowledge itself is necessarily lost. Good manners bring along connection, exchange, possible affection and perhaps even face-saving or life-saving information. Without good manners, such things are lost. What is left is yet another breakdown of civilization, and these days we need as few of those as possible.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports