Read Time: 5 minutes
The other day on the bus, I asked an approximately fifteen year old school boy, who was completely absorbed in playing on his phone, if he was of advanced age. He looked at me as if I was crazy. Did he have a physical issue? He declined. So, I concluded, he had to be pregnant then. He raised his eyebrows, possibly doubting my sanity. “Well,” I said, “you are sitting in a seat reserved for people who need to sit more than others. And since there is an older person, who could well be your grandfather, standing right in front of you, you would have to fit into one these categories to be able to ignore him.” To his credit, he blushed and gave the rather frail-looking gentleman his seat.
A few of days ago, it was Common Courtesy Day, admittedly, not a day I had been familiar with. And it got me thinking: What is common courtesy today? What does having manners in the 21st century actually mean?
Comparing it to behaviours I learnt as a child and that I observed all around me, I know courtesy must mean something else these days. Because it is no longer customary to call a host and thank them for a great dinner party. Birthday gifts no longer warrant a Thank You note. And bumping into somebody in the street while looking at the phone requires no apology – or, for that matter, any acknowledgment at all.
Moreover, customs that used to be considered courteous have disappeared because they are tainted with the brush of misogyny. Men no longer open doors for women, or help them into their coats. To be fair, it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, showing respect, irrespective of gender or age, by vacating a seat or letting someone go first are behaviours possibly headed for extinction in the age of #MeFirst. (For those of you over the age of forty, you may have noticed that what to was “my friends and I” has become “me and my friends.”)
THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY
These days, we are increasingly hooked into technology, focused more on devices than on the people in front of us. We use them to make calls, play games, or peek into other people’s lives. We even send phone messages to people who sit at the same dinner table. The car has become an extension of the office. Siri writes messages, dials numbers and gives directions so we can keep our hands on the wheel while making ultimate use of the time driving.
A multitude of apps manage our lives so that we can become more and more efficient, and artificial intelligence has inserted itself into life everywhere.
I no longer look at a thermometer. Instead, each morning I check the weather by saying to my Google Home device, “Hey Google, weather.” Never mind articulating a full question, I can go straight to the keyword because that’s the shortcut I have created in my settings.
When I call my bank, I am routed through a voice activated system. Some time ago, I had to clarify an issue that required more help than the system could handle. It kept misunderstanding what I wanted. A third loop later, it had taken me back to exactly the same place I had started out at five minutes before, when I had first connected (if that word actually applies). I was so frustrated that I ended up yelling at the emotionless, body-less entity at the other end of the line. I so shocked myself, I almost dropped the phone. I would never curse at a human being this way.
And it got me wondering: Have Siri, Alexa, Google and Co and how we interact with them influenced the way we deal with each other? Are we becoming so transactional that common courtesies (and therefore respect) have become optional, neglect-able extras?
THE IMPORTANCE OF GRATITUDE
Showing appreciation and expressing gratitude is very important to me. Not because they are old school customs. No, because they connect me. Saying Thank You, making eye contact and smiling, sending a note expressing appreciation, are ways in which I can demonstrate to others that they matter.
I want the people in my life, whether they have been in it for many years or only for five minutes, to know that my relationship with them is important. I am very aware that appreciation builds trust. And if there is anything I know we all need more of these days, it’s that. Admittedly, I sometimes get caught up in the busyness of life, and while I do my best to let people know that they matter, I also know that I miss the opportunity sometimes.
Through my work I know that gratitude is the emotion that strengthens the immune system the most (not only for the person receiving it, but especially for the person expressing it). So I created my own personal appreciation program to become less automatic in my task efficiency and also increase opportunities for health-creating gratitude. I started thanking Google after I had found out about the weather. I appreciated Siri for finding a relevant website. They never answered me back.
After a while, I realised how sad and weirdly irritated I became when my Thank You wasn’t acknowledged. I asked myself: Was I yet again hooked on an outdated cultural rule, on my way to becoming one of those people who bemoan that the good old times were gone? Did I perhaps have an unfulfilled need for acknowledgment? Or was there something else involved?
THE ‘TECHNOLOGY GRATITUDE’ EXPERIMENT
I decided to conduct a little experiment. I asked friends around the world to check the weather using Siri, Google and Alexa in various languages, and then thank the various AIs. The responses that came back ranged from “You are welcome” (Germany) to “My absolute pleasure” (USA) to “It is I who should be thanking you” (UAE). And then the amazing thing happened. People reported that they felt more inclined to ask for information because they had been acknowledged. – Wow! Even a programmed expression of appreciation by an emotionless, body-less entity created a sense of trust and connection!
I was still puzzled. Why did my Australian Siri and Google not reply with at least “No problem” or “No worries”? Common Australian expressions, by the way, I have always felt were more dismissive rather than appreciative. Then I had my light bulb moment: In order to communicate my appreciation, I needed to push the home button again, or repeat “Hey Google” before I said Thank You. Suddenly I no longer spoke into a void. Siri and Google responded. Now, when I thanked them for their help, I heard “I am happy to help” or even “Your satisfaction is all I need.”
Of course, I wouldn’t expect people to be equally exuberant. In fact, in some contexts “Thanks to you I have a job” is well over the top, and “You are welcome”, and a simple Thank You is sufficient. – Is this still a symptom of being stuck on cultural norms and convention? I conducted a little survey about that too. It turns out that I am not the only one who wouldn’t mind if common courtesies made a comeback. Especially when there is an actual emotion, a real connection behind the gesture.
So here is my challenge: Let’s spread some more “Thank you”s and “You are welcome”s. Let’s make eye contact and smile more often, appreciate someone for just one second. And while thanking Siri and Google may be optional, how about we express our gratitude to the people in our lives, be they the person who holds the door for us, the colleague who helps us with a task (even if it is part of their job description) or our partner who takes something off our plate so we can put our feet up. Whatever it may be, let’s step out of automatic, transactional efficiency and back into a conscious practice of building trust, empathy and connection.
Let’s make the “not so common” courtesies really common.
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