Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love and Communication in the 21st Century: Why Haven't I Heard from You?

"I will not be ignored."

And with those words began Glenn Close's descent into murderous madness in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. Though I would never go so far as to boil a bunny rabbit, chase after a guy who clearly is not that into me, or terrorize a family with a large knife, I can kind of understand where crazy Alex Forrest (the first of two roles that should have won Close consecutive Oscars) was coming from.

I hate to be ignored. Maybe it's the effect of growing up in a family of four children and always having to compete with my siblings for attention. Maybe it's my general insecurity: People show they care by at least acknowledging your existence. Sometimes that means dropping them a few lines or responding to theirs, if for no other reason than to say, "You matter to me (too)."

I'm not saying that I need anyone's undivided attention all the time. A little attentiveness goes a long way. I hate feeling crowded and claustrophobic nearly as much as I hate to be ignored. And if you are doing nothing but doting on me 24/7, chances are you expect reciprocity, and I have no interest in that tit for tat.

What I'm saying is that if you're a significant other, someone I work with, a friend with whom I regularly communicate (or who lives next door!), and I take a few minutes out of my day to send you a message on Facebook or a text message or an email or a voice mail, the least you can do is get back to me within 24 hours, a week tops (though for significant others, seven whole days, as Toni Braxton once sang, just won't do). Wouldn't Miss Manners agree?

My friend Lori brought up a very good point the other day when we were talking about love and communication in the 21st century. Texting, Facebook, iPhones and Twitter, she said, have changed all of the rules. We are all so plugged in these days, tweeting our every thought and all of the minutiae of our humdrum lives, status updating that we are about to go to the bathroom or that we've just gone from "single" to "it's complicated." (How is that even possible?)

Social media have made keeping up with the Joneses and everyone else the highest priority. We communicate with the world on an hourly basis. Why is it so hard to make more of an effort to reach out and touch the people we claim to love?

Unanswered emails and texts and phone calls, Lori suggested, take on a whole new significance in 2011. In the '90s, you could rationalize silent treatment and pretend that he or she was too busy to respond or maybe hadn't yet retrieved his or her voice mails. Those excuses no longer work. If you have enough time to update your status on Facebook, you have enough time to respond to that sweet email I sent you one week ago to tell me "Yeah, I miss you, too." Today it's hard not to read open hostility in a message that goes unanswered.

There should be none of this "I was too down in the dumps," or "I wasn't in the right head space to respond." My sister used an excuse like that to explain why she didn't call me on my 30th birthday (and anyone who has known me for 30 years should know how important birthdays are to me -- especially ones that end in 0), and our relationship never really recovered. It only takes a few moments to get out of your own head and consider what might be going on in someone else's. Then you can return to your regularly scheduled foul mood.

The interesting side to this is that if you send someone an email blasting them for not responding to that other one, chances are you will get a response within five minutes. I'm not sure why people are quicker to respond to anger -- with anger -- than they are to respond to kindness. My high school friend Kristen suggested that "Ruffled feathers get more attention than a smooth hairdo."

I do believe she nailed it. Since neither ruffles nor feathers really suit me, I'm not going to make a habit of getting up into people's faces (virtually speaking) to get their attention. But the next time you receive an email or a text or a voice mail from me -- the latter of which is highly unlikely, since I hate talking on the telephone -- think twice before you decide to respond some other time and then never get around to it.

You don't want to ruffle my feathers. I look so much nicer with my smooth hairdo.

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