In the third book of the Hunger Games Trilogy, one of the main characters, Peeta, is subjected to terrible brainwashing and can no longer trust himself to know if what he is experiencing is real. So, he constantly asks, “Real or not real?” So much of life nowadays seems to beg the same question. We are continuously presented with constructs that appear real, but are often anything but. It is challenging enough for adults to discern the real from the crafted since everything from political candidates and general news to whole grains and health advice is being cleverly marketed to us 24/7. How are children to navigate this world of the so-called Real?
Reality TV? What is that? How about people’s Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Instagrams? Real or not real? How can we tell? We can be anything we want to be online. Our image can be honed and crafted until we actually feel that we have morphed into our invented avatar - and that becomes our reality.
But real life is not an online construct or a TV show. It is still based upon face to face interactions - with our family, our friends, our co-workers and the cashier at the grocery store. And hopefully, it always will be. Not that it isn’t great that so much can be accomplished online. The convenience for purchasing items you once had to run all over town to find, for banking without having to stand in line, and quickly sending communications that used to have to go by mail are wonderful. But I doubt that life will become some futuristic sci-fi scenario where no one leaves the safety of their homes. That means we have to interact with other humans and get along. And that means that face to face manners are still relevant. Real.
Over the years I’ve had people ask me if manners aren’t actually unnatural and affected, old-fashioned and fake: i.e. not real. These people usually pride themselves on being “Authentic” - with a capital A. Of course, they too are creating and honing an image that advertises their values, although they don’t see it that way. The unkempt hair and rumpled clothes are a badge of honor declaring that they are too serious to care about superficial things such as, for instance, showing respect. The fact that they say whatever is on their minds - potentially blunt to the point of tactless, or perhaps liberally peppered with four letter words - only goes to show that they are “being real.” And if you are offended by their demeanor, well, that’s your problem.
Of course, there is another category of people who make tactless blunders, too. The ones who do it unintentionally. They aren’t trying to make a point, become infamous, or paint themselves as somehow superior by their disregard for customs and niceties. They simply don’t seem to know any better. Case in point: While in Texas visiting relatives over the holidays I struck up a conversation with an orthopedic surgeon who is a part of a prestigious clinic in Dallas. The subject of manners came up, and he was bemoaning the fact that many of the young doctors he interviews or instructs at the various hospitals have less than stellar people skills. I asked him what his top five complaints were, what he wished these young, brilliant candidates or residents would do differently. Here’s what he said:
1. Look me in the eye.
2. Speak up and speak clearly so I can understand you.
3. Don’t swear in front of patients and other people as if that is normal conversation. (Real!)
4. Don’t keep checking your smart-phone in the middle of things.
5. Just generally, be polite!
Now, I don’t know about you, but these seem pretty basic to me. And lest you think that this doctor is some old codger who is out of touch with modern societal norms and is making mountains out of mole hills, I am talking about my youngest cousin, who (at the time of this writing) is 35 years old, is famous for his amazing bed-side manner and who emanates calm, confidence, and respect for others. Gee, I wonder why he was invited to join such a famously regarded orthopedic group?
No matter how times change, no matter how the virtual and real worlds collide and even coalesce, the one thing that remains the same is that we need to get along. How can social, societal or business goals progress and succeed if people can’t demonstrate respect and understanding of each other? Whether it is disregard for others due to self-focus and convenience, or simply the distraction of instant gratification that modern life makes far too easy, it comes down to the same thing: those of us who understand the incredible importance of courtesy must demonstrate it and insist upon it where we have influence.
We are fast becoming a “why bother” society. Why bother getting dressed up? Why bother being on time? Why bother standing up to say hello? Why bother looking up from my screen? Why bother treating you like a human being? So far, whether it’s TV, social networking or portable technology, we can clearly see that we are slowly and steadily losing the very basis of what makes civilized society work. We may think that we are keeping in touch with more friends than ever, but is it actually real? Or is it quantity versus quality. And down the road, when our children, as brilliant as they may be, go on an interview and do not have the skill-set to make a great impression, what good does all that virtual social-time turn out to be?
Is the current slide away from courtesy and into coarseness and self-centeredness real or not real? It depends. Obviously we have good interactions with people all the time. There are people out there who are very aware of how they are affecting people and do wish to have a positive impact. They want to make you feel good because it makes them feel good, too. They understand that is the way we make the world a better place. What is also real is that there are more and more things to distract us, to take our attention away from others and place it onto things or even onto ourselves to our own detriment. In a society in which we hang upon people’s tweets, or document our lives through photos of our lattes, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, what is real, or rather, what really matters, because it is relationships that truly make the world go around. So, let’s get real. Real is from me to you. It is in my obvious demonstrations of respect - that I acknowledge your presence on this earth by standing up, looking you in the eye, smiling, shaking hands, and generally treating you as if you matter. It’s not difficult, it’s not a bother, and it’s definitely not fake. Real beats “Authentic” every time.