Saturday, 1 May 2010

Is R.S.V.P. Dead?

The fact that historically people have written 'R.S.V.P.' (standing for the French phrase Répondez S'il Vous Plait, i.e., Respond, Please) on the bottom of invitations suggests that even in the past, ages which we think had greater manners, people could be neglectful of telling their host if they were coming to an event or not.  However, certainly in my life of forty years, I have seen a decline in this basic courtesy.  It seems to occur at all levels.  In the workplace the advent of electronic systems has actually reversed this tendency a little.  Send an electronic invitation to a meeting and the recipient is often compelled to click if they will attend or not.  If you do not use such a system, though, then people sending apologies, or probably more accurately, Apologies, has declined severely even in the period that I have been in full-time work since the early 1990s.  I suppose there are things like emails and even online conferencing to fill the gaps, but it is not only an issue of knowing who has been involved in a debate at a meeting and who has had their voice heard, but simple professional courtesy.  I suppose such 'non-productive' activity has been frowned upon since the era of 'lunch is for wimps' that came in during the 1980s, in fact to make under-staffed offices seem dynamic.

Of course, companies not contacting you after you have attended an interview to tell you that you have not got the job has been going on for many years now.  It leaves you hanging in doubt for a number of days, hoping that you will get a call.  How hard is it, as with my last interview, when there have only been four candidates, to telephone and thank you for attending but saying you have not got the job.  They do not have to telephone, they could send an email, putting you out of your misery far quicker.  No-one seems to spare a thought for the fact that applying and being interviewed for jobs is tough enough and the lingering hope that you might have got it, just makes it feel even more bitter.  Clearly I cannot comprehend that for companies recruiting, a quick phonecall is something that they have no time for or no willingness to do.  Perhaps they do not even give it that much thought, once the candidate is out the room they give no consideration to the fate of the people who did not get the job.  In this, however, they do not realise that they might be dissuading someone they thought was good enough to interview from ever applying again and also might be attracting unnecessary bad publicity from someone working in their sector.

I suppose the fact that I cannot understand this off-hand behaviour shows how out-of-step I am with current business culture, which, certainly where I am now working, seems to have gone back to the 1980s.  I get accused of being 'unprofessional' because I keep my workforce informed about developments, rather than concealing what I know.  The attitude of my superiors is often incredibly patronising, they seem to believe that the average office worker has no idea about the broader business and lacks the intelligence to guess about it.  They also seem to assume that people are only concerned about having a job or being unemployed, that they are not interested in the own job, its quality and how it fits into the broader scope of the company's activity. 
Another criticism I have levelled at me, is that I 'waste' too much time on niceties.  I guess perhaps living in Britain with culture so influenced by the USA I am in a society far removed from what I see as courteous.  When I faced frustration from colleagues that meetings did not start the moment everyone was seated, I began to characterise the introductory conversation as the 'Bedouin tent coffee conversations', i.e that before you start business you show interest in the people you are meeting with, as humans.  Having worked in Germany and especially in Spain and Portugal, I know business people there put a lot of store by such interaction.  It was incredibly embarrassing to be at a series of meetings across a number of days in Portugal involving representatives from France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and Portugal, to find we had to turn down the events we had been invited to because my company had booked us to fly out two hours after the last meeting was scheduled to finish. The company seemed to have no idea how rude that seemed to our hosts and the fact that we missed out on the informal networking.  I know that people on expenses and 'junkets' earn a bad name, but in British business culture we seem to have gone too far the other way and now seem terse and cold towards international business partners.

Such terse verging on rude behaviour is not confined to the business world, it is now embedded in our social contacts as well.  It seems ironic that people feel that if they cannot raise you on your mobile phone that something is wrong.  Using Twitter and Facebook people update their acquaintances and even complete strangers to their state of mind, even their whereabouts.  However, send out an invitation, electronically, or particularly on paper and you receive a completely different attitude.  Of course, two hours before any event you are hosting you receive a flurry of people pulling out.  This is the stage when they realise that if they actually are going to attend they need to stop what they are doing and begin getting ready and setting off.  This is pretty rude especially for events that need catering, but these days I am glad for even this last minute courtesy.  What is more common is people simply not turning up and not informing you of that fact.  Given the range of communication devices we have these days there is no excuse.  You can text or call from a traffic jam, you can send an email or a tweet from the railway station where you are stuck or even from the wireless laptop you have with you on the train.  You can telephone.  Even if your mobile phone has been stolen or run out of charge you can still use the remaining telephone boxes.  If I am not able to answer, then simply leave a message.  None of this is difficult.  For those people who have decided not to come long before the actual day, it is even easier.  However, these days it is rare to receive any communication that the people are not coming.

It seems ironic given how much 'rage' we have in public life that people actually find it difficult to engage with people, even their friends, over 'challenging' or 'difficult' issues.  They are quite happy to bellow or hoot someone or swear vigorously at them as that is all one-way communication, they have no real emotional engagement with it and can stomp or drive away if they do not like the response.  People cannot deal with 'I am sorry, I cannot come to your party' and the 'That's a shame I was really looking forward to you being there'.  That is too much of a burden for so many adults these days.  They would rather be rude and saying nothing at all.  This unwillingness to even face a slightly discomforting conversation feeds back into business and I have a manager who complains 'I don't want to know that' when people make even constructive criticism about the company and tries to have every meeting artificially jolly even when people are at loggerheads.  Part of the reason is that too many people in work cannot process the concept that others see their company and people's behaviour within it as different from how they see it themselves.  Often these days I hear people say that it is a 'lie' when people express a differing opinion.  This tunnel vision allows people who do not respond either way to an invite, to see themselves as being polite and in the right.

It is not that I accept that my event may not be the most important thing on a person's agenda, I am quite happy for them to say 'no, I cannot come', whatever their reason.  What is more difficult is hearing nothing at all, especially when buying food and drink is an issue.  It is infinitely worse when the event is not an adult one but a child's.  This is the situation in which rudeness begins to result not just in too much food being bought or people sitting around waiting for someone to turn up who never comes, in such circumstances it is far more unpleasant.  For the past five years I have been involved each year indirectly in a child's birthday party.  Given that with funds tight, children these days are usually limited to the number of people they can invite, they carefully select who will receive an invitation.  The day of the party comes and you have heard nothing back from half of the parents even though you have left reminder messages on their answerphone and sent texts.  You dare not tell the child that half of their friends may not come, just in case, as often happens, some of them actually turn up, even though they have given you no indication that they are attending. 

Another percentage will show up at the wrong time.  Two of the families this year, despite saying their child was attending had gone shopping, one lot to London and then only realised they were supposed to be coming to the party.  One showed up near the end and one never came at all.  I feel discouraged when people do that to me as an adult, but to a child with all the issues about having their friends around and the presents they will receive it easily turns what is supposed to be a happy day into a stressful one as they cling on hoping a particular friend will show and the adults are no better informed than them.

Are our lives so busy; do we and the children around us have so much going on that we simply forget all invitations?  In fact, those families who fill their children's weekends with sports and music activities are often the ones best at responding to invitiations even if it is with a constant 'no'.  If we lived in primative times when communication was difficult there might be an excuse, but these days when we walk around with communication devices that can send a movie to the other side of the world in seconds, why is it so difficult to use such tools?  I am probably coming at this from the wrong end.  How did it become acceptable to not respond to an invitation at all, and yet see no difficulty in speaking to the people you have so snubbed, again?  How is it acceptable to ignore an invitation and then turn round and invite the people you have just snubbed to some event?  I suppose it is this breakage in people's minds between their actions and the consequences of those actions.  I suppose when people see nothing wrong in speeding then I should not be surprised that they see nothing wrong in ignoring an invitation and expecting you to be happy about it.  We have become so utterly selfish that other people's feelings count for nothing compared to our desires and our apathy.  Have we so lost empathy that we cannot see that if we treat someone else's child in such an off hand way someone will treat our child just the same?  It seems so.

One reason why I like Goths is that all, I think without exception among those I have met, have 'old fashioned' manners.  If they cannot attend they phone or text or email me and say 'sorry, I can't come, maybe next time'.  This is a rarity in modern UK society where people think it is acceptable simply to ignore an invitation whether they want to attend or not.  People wonder why our society is so fragmented and it is because despite all the technology that allows us to do it, we have developed an antipathy (maybe simply an apathy) to simply communicating with people.

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