Social issues

Weekly Writing Challenge: Salutations? Who cares?

WordPress

WordPress says:

Where do you stand on the grand salutation question? Do you instinctively write “Dear…” even to your siblings? Do you drop any attempt at deference even when writing to your boss, professor, government representative? Do you mix-and-match depending on your audience’s status, age, or culture? Answer the poll below, and then, in a separate post on your own blog, expand on your thoughts regarding etiquette in the age of email. Stories, anecdotes, poems, opinion pieces, essays short and long — all are welcome contributions. Don’t forget to tag your post with DPchallenge, so that we can all read your take on email (in)formality.

I almost choked with a combination of laughter and astonishment. And I thought Facebook (last week’s challenge) was silly. But this is so much sillier! Wow.

Why does WordPress wants us to address this as if it were a meaningful questions? An issue? “Salutations” on email messages? Someone really cares? Do they — the good people at WordPress — really care? Really and truly? Because if this is the big controversy in their world, they are missing the point. Which point? All the points. Everything that matters and makes a difference.

Serendipity Says

Mom always said: “You ask a silly question, you get a stupid answer.” You might want ponder the inner, deeper layers of meaning of this classic, yet still charming truism. You guys are not joking? Because if you are, that would be fine with me. If you aren’t, and I guess you aren’t, okay, I’ll tell you.

I don’t care.

I never did.

I never will.

If you are talking about formal communication with superiors, teachers, employers and colleagues, there is typically a standard for email messages at school and/or in the workplace. There’s no need to guess. Just follow the rules. I’ve written guides for students and faculty to deal with this issue. Some schools encourage informality as do some workplaces. Learning basic manners is another issue and goes way outside the boundaries of email salutations. In reality, in any kind of structured setting, there are rules and standards. Follow them or pay a penalty.

The question of whether today’s young adults know when to be formal vs. informal, even know the difference or understand how to be civil is a separate — and much larger — area of discussion. It might be an issue worth discussing.

Short of someone spewing obscenities (why am I corresponding with anyone who’d do that?) or outright insulting me (again, why am I corresponding with someone who’d insult me?), what matters is my friend. The message. To that end, I ignore missing punctuation, grammar, typos, missing words … all of it. This isn’t school. My role is not that of a judge or school marm. Spelling and punctuation matter to the extent they clarify the message. Otherwise, all I care about is content. I won’t notice if there is a salutation or not.

To sum it up again: I don’t care. Not one little bit. Not in a minor way. Or a major way. Not in any way.

Who is extremely polite in email? Scammers and spammers. They address you with your full name, as if you were a dignitary. That is one of the markers to warn you it’s fake.

Are we so cocooned in our little corner of the blogosphere that all we care about are silly things? Email salutations? I think we are better than this. Now, if this were meant to be funny … that I could wrap my head around, but as an issue I’m supposed to take seriously? Good Lord, no.

What’s the underlying issue?

I started out thinking this is a non issue. As phrased, it is. But underneath the question, are serious unasked questions about how to strike the appropriate tone and content for various types of electronic communications. Formal versus informal. Social context. Command structure. The nature of internet relationships with people who are not friends or family members. Respecting boundaries, something about which many young people are hazy. If you didn’t learn at home, you will learn quickly out in the big bad world the first time you inadvertently show disrespect to a boss or co-worker. Or, God protect you, a commanding officer.

Early in the cyberworld, before email formats were standardized, there were issues about salutations and signing off to identify sender and recipient. Today, the embedded format of email programs, from gmail to whatever your office or university uses, is set to handle this stuff. Automatically. And getting better all the time.

When you’ve got an electronic header, a salutation for an informal communication is redundant or optional at most. Email isn’t snail mail, just faster. It is a different animal. So many conventions of traditional paper mail are embedded by format in email from CCs and subject lines to headers. Our software takes care of details. We need guidelines for content. It’s not just about grammar and punctuation. It’s the whole cyber-culture where there are no rules and everyone makes it up as they go along. Until suddenly, that’s not good enough.

Other than a ritual adherence to form without substance? What’s the point? Email is what it is. Now, if you’d like to discuss manners in communication, that’s a meaty subject.

Life hurts

My granddaughter and many of her friends are having big problems in high school. Their problems are identical to those of my generation but this generation is even more clueless than we were. They have no idea how to cope. They are like those monkeys raised with wire mothers, at a loss to relate to other monkeys. 

They don’t know the difference between a real friend and a casual acquaintance. The glib labeling from social media is, for them, the real deal … until they discover it’s not.

Becoming a misfit in high school is easy. If you are different, you are going to have social problems. How large these problems loom is a function of the vulnerability of the individual.

In the “good old days” when I was growing up, rumors and lies spread no faster than however long it took to pass the word from person to person. Today, with the click of a mouse on a Facebook page or mobile phone, the same meanness, backbiting and gossip that has always been with us can be distributed instantly to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. It’s the same stuff, but it gets around faster.

Schools can’t deal with the problem. It’s too amorphous. They can’t control the Internet, text messages, and social media sites. It’s so easy to pick on someone. It doesn’t even have to be intentional.

A moment of pique, thoughtlessness, a casual reference, ordinary gossip can do an enormous amount of damage to a fragile adolescent ego. The electronic world is as real to them … maybe even more real … than traditional relationships. I’m not sure they understand there is a difference.

I’ve watched the dynamics of this first generation of young people for whom cell phones and computers are as ordinary as electricity was for us. I’ve watched them sit together in groups preferring to text each other rather than talk. I’ve wondered how in the world they would ever learn how to have a real relationship, to make the kind of friends that last a lifetime.

The answer is that they haven’t learned. They are lost.

They are starting to pay the price of hiding behind electronic communication. They have used it as a substitute for face time, conversation, of really being with other people.

Shy kids have had no motivation to get over it. They can’t handle even the simplest conversation. They don’t get it that people can be two-faced, dishonest, and just mean and that it isn’t personal. People are what they are. We older people could help if they let us, but we’re fossils, stupid old people suggesting they talk to each other, spend time together, that you can’t become “best friends for life” by exchanging emails.

They’ve relied on words alone, out of context of the rest of the package: facial expression and body language.  They have never learned to “read” people. They can’t see when someone is lying.

Growing up is hard. Being a teenager is rough. It was as true 50 years ago as today, but we never had the choice of hiding behind a computer.

A lot of young people have had only minimal contact with other kids. There are a lot of forces at work, not only the hyper-availability of technology but also the fearfulness parents, the limited availability of free time, the overly structured lives kids have. They can’t just hang out. They aren’t encouraged to do stuff  independently.

If my generation suffered from unwillingness to discipline our kids, this generation of parents not only doesn’t discipline kids, they smother and over-protect them from life itself. They label everything as bullying. They do not encourage their offspring to face problems and assure them they can handle it, that you don’t get emotional strength by avoiding life. Instead they buy into the endless psychobabble and make their kids feel even more helpless.

I’m not surprised at the problems. Despite my son and daughter-in-law’s contention that kids are meaner than they were, I don’t agree. Kid, people, are no different than they ever were.  The difference is that parents are afraid to let their kids work out their problems. They don’t let them grow up. Sometimes, I think they don’t really want them to grow up, as if they want them to stay permanently dependent and childish. They have no idea how much they will regret it.

It’s natural to want to protect your children from hurt, but you shouldn’t protect them from life.

Life hurts. Life is also wonderful, rich, rewarding, exciting. But never pain-free.

There’s no turning back from technology. Nor would most of us want to dump our computers and cell phones. There does need to be a better balance. Technology won’t produce relationships. Exchanging words is not bonding. Sending texts and emails can’t establish closeness.

It’s a tall order convincing teenagers that emotional pain is part of growing up. Nothing but experience will help toughen them up so they can function in the world.

No one gets a pass from pain. Money won’t buy it. Private schools won’t keep life away. There’s only one way to become a survivor — experience. These kids need to get out and live. Put the cell phones away and talk to each other. Get involved. Let life happen to them, be swept away by events and emotions. Learn that feelings are manageable … with practice.

They aren’t getting the message. Maybe if they read it on Facebook?