“Contentment” is a word you don’t hear very often anymore. It’s such a passive word. These days we’re all about superlatives. You can’t even buy a small Coke. You have to choose from “large,” “extra large,” “big gulp” and “belly buster.”
Don’t get me started on Starbucks.
There are no movie and singing stars anymore. None. Now all actors and singers are “SUPERstars!” The real superstars are “MEGAstars!” (In a perverse, word nerd way I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where the publicity flaks take us from here.)
How many emails do you get in which people use so many exclamation points they must have bought them at Costco?
Calm words are boring, I guess. When I ask people how they are nobody just says “fine.” Everybody is “excellent,” and “awesome!” If you tell somebody you’re “fine” these days they think you’re either deeply depressed or too busy to be bothered. “Fine” has become, in effect, a benign way of dismissing people.
I guess there’s something pathetic about plain old contentment that just reeks of giving up and settling for less.
What’s going on here? Why are we all driving for higher levels of okay? Remember when being okay was a good thing? Now it makes you suspect. If you tell somebody you’re “okay” they think you’re brooding or pouting or about to launch into some self-serving tirade. “No, really, I’m okay!” When you put an exclamation point on it like that it looks like you’re covering something up or being super defensive. Not just defensive, see, SUPER defensive!!! Or, maybe you scare people by being calm. Maybe they suspect you’re going to be the next guy in the news who walked into his former office and shot up the place.
“He was a nice guy. Always quiet; kept to himself. Said he was ‘fine.’”
Something is driving us these days and I don’t think it’s just the cultural evolution of semantics. I think, for some reason, a lot of us are screaming for attention.
And I wouldn’t mention it, of course, unless I had a theory. Here it is:
We baby boomers have been screwing around with America’s social foundation since the sixties when some of us suddenly decided we had no further need for our parents, teachers and other authority figures.
This was evolving when I was still in high school. We still had a dress code and we still addressed teachers as Mr. This and Mrs. That. But just a few years later there was a brief but widespread attempt to equalize the social standing between students and teachers when students began addressing teachers by their first names. Teachers at the time, many of them children of the sixties, nearly unanimously and warmly accepted this practice as enlightened and hip. I don’t know for sure why this cultural experiment didn’t jell but I suspect it caused a structural breakdown that even those young boomer teachers who opposed the rule of authority had to admit caused some real disruption in classrooms. When “Mr. Farber” confiscated your hash pipe and sent you to the office there were consequences. If “Phil” tried do do that, you probably laughed and Phil smiled, too. In any case, it didn’t last very long but I do see a social pattern that can be traced back to that era.
Young people these days almost never say, “You’re welcome.” Instead they say, “No problem,” which is hardly the same thing. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” are ancient pleasantries, expressions of respect. But now it’s gotten to the point I don’t even want to thank anybody because I dread the kickback I know I’m about to receive. When I thank a waiter for bringing my meal he says, “No problem” and honestly, I feel a little insulted or, at least, brushed aside. I want to respond, “I’m greatly relieved that my presence, requiring you to perform a small part of your job, isn’t creating a problem for you,” but I don’t. I know he wasn’t trying to insult me but by not acknowledging my respectful gratitude with an equally personal and gracious, “You’re welcome,” he is unconsciously diverting attention from me, his customer, to himself. Not only does it abruptly terminate the intended exchange of pleasantries, it draws a faint line between us. In effect the waiter is saying to me, “You’re doing your thing (ordering a meal) and I’m doing mine (bringing it.)” In an unconscious effort to equalize the social standing between us the waiter is rejecting the relationship that naturally exists.
Being a waiter isn’t demeaning and neither is being polite. We are all subordinate to others at times in various circumstances and that’s a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble and respectful of others. But when we blur the distinction between customer and waiter we rob ourselves of an opportunity to experience a supporting role in society. At other times, in different circumstances, the waiter is a customer, too.
Carolann thinks I’m a nutball when I start prattling on about this stuff. She says I’m too picky about words and she does have a point because I take people far more literally than they generally intend. The thing is, when I don’t I’m confused. The subtleties and shadings of implications in our language are powerful and I hate being forced to go through life unclear about everything everybody says. I find myself constantly guessing what people mean as opposed to what they say. I’m never sure what to believe and isn’t that true to some extent for all of us these days?
When was the last time you fully believed or understood something you read in a newspaper or saw on TV? It’s popular these days to accuse the mass media of having a political agenda that slants the information they provide us. I hate political bickering and won’t go down that road just now but I do think what we’re seeing, hearing and reading today are more shouts for attention, the clamoring of an ever more desperate generation of narcissists growing old without contentment.
© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved