Thursday, January 27, 2022 Jan 27, 2022
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The unhappy age of communication
By  |

IS ANYBODY ELSE as weary as I am of hearing that “we are not communicating’? Often as not, people are communicating only too well. One may be transmitting rage; the other, resentment. How ridiculous to assume that neither is noticing the other’s true communication, when it’s impossible to miss. In fact, a friend observed that the oft-quoted phrase “we are not communicating” is really a cover for the statement “we disagree.”

But there are those who believe that more communication will somehow overcome disagreement-or, even better, make it unnecessary to acknowledge that there was a disagreement in the first place. Why is it so painful to acknowledge differences? Does the resistance stem from narcissism, a need to be not only the center of our universe but our only universe? Or from a desperate fear that someone whose views differ from our own is beyond our control?

So we call for more communication, not realizing that the real need is for better listening. “Listening,” another friend told me, “changes chemistry.” And a doctor who has recently returned to private practice after several years at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas observed with surprise how much time he spends simply listening to patients. “I used to be at the center of high medical technology,” he said, “but now that’s a younger doctor’s game.” He added that being listened to is what seems to help the patient most. It’s not procedures and techniques; it’s being heard.

But procedures and techniques are the order of the hour at the hottest new emporium in town, the INFOMART. There, dazzling techology will computerize your “in” box and flash each piece of correspondence on a screen (if you’re lucky enough to receive a real letter from a real person instead of the hype that hounds most of us). You can answer it then and there-right on your computer-file it or toss it out without ever touching the paper on which it’s written. Then, according to a visitor who took a tour of all this magical machinery, the computer will “massage” (that’s right) your next letter in the day’s mail and deliver it to you on the monitor.

Now this is not to say that INFOMART isn’t a fantastic place or that computer science isn’t doing incredible things to ease our lives. I couldn’t live without my word processor, and no doubt others feel equally dependent on their versions of the computer. But it’s only a tool. It’s absurd to say that we’re living in the age of communications. We’re living in an age of high technology, and there’s a big difference. The computer can record and transmit, but it can’t listen. It’s behaving like many people today.

Of course, there are other players besides electronic types in the current cult of communications. Have you ever run into the practitioners of total honesty? Actually, those people are holdovers from the Sixties, when love and harmony were going to save us. Whatever happened, I wonder, to love and harmony? It’s odd that they were em-lems of one of the bloodiest eras of our history, with urban riots at home and carnage in Vietnam. It now seems that the call for love and harmony really masked deep hostility. And it’s the same today with the “total honesty” crowd. Beware of the person who wants to level with you completely; you might be happier not knowing all of it.

If personal communication is floundering at the moment from an excess of technique and an absence of empathy, mass communication is flourishing. The problem is that too much of it seems to be aimed exclusively at “the upscale audience”-those upwardly mobile professional people who evidently thrive on the fantasies prepared for them by the American media with the help of advertising.

I ought to know. D is one of those media organizations that of necessity peddles glamour and happiness in return for the chance to publish some of the serious work that matters to us. But our first mission isn’t all that reprehensible. Life can be brutal at the core, and any relief we can supply from it is well worth the effort. If a good restaurant or some snappy fashion can make us forget for a moment the hard truth of our situation, then let’s be glad for that.

The problem is that everybody is going after the affluent audience, and nobody seems to be addressing ordinary Americans except politicians and TV evangelists. The result may turn out to be a dangerous mixture of tense, fearful, rigid, intolerant people overlaid with a glossy population of anxious strivers in permanent flight from reality.

Relentless extroversion has always been expected of Americans. Anybody who’s had experience with psychological testing for job interviews soon learns to check the box that says you love parties and never admit that you might occasionally like to stay at home and read a book. So low a premium do we put on introspection that too few people are reaching inside themselves for the stuff of life that, once reflected upon and truly expressed, can become the kind of communication that sustains an age.

But for all that, we do have people in Dallas who are striving for authenticity. Some are searching for a sense of place; some have found it and written books about it. Two recent publications come to mind: A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and A. Lee McAlester is an excellent compendium of essential housing styles, and Day Trips In and Around Dallas by Laura Trim offers a pithy, informative summary of things to do and see here in our own territory. Both books represent a civilized communication about simple pleasures, the sorts of things that can help keep us sane.

Another writer who’s digging for things that matter is Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, author of the best sellers A Woman of Independent Means and Life Sentences. In this issue, we’re publishing her first short story. It’s based on characters from her third novel, which is now in the finishing stages. In it, Hailey proves herself a master of the short story. She has the gift. Written with clarity and simplicity, A Moving Violation explores the relationship of a woman in midlife with her teen-age daughter and with the daughter’s one-time friend, who lets jealousy destroy affection. It’s filled with insight and rue, and it’s the work of a writer coming decisively into her own. Clearly, Hailey’s third book will be her best to date.

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