Brian's Blogs

An apple a day … keeps your friends away

I was recently watching an old black-and-white musical, made in 1944, but set 40 years earlier. In it, there was one scene that made me smile. One of the characters is using a telephone to call his sweetheart long distance. "Isn't it amazing," he was saying – or words to that effect – "that here am I in New York, and there you are in St Louis, and we can actually get to talk to one another" … before a 'conversation' in which he said practically nothing at all of importance.

Technological progress, together with some of the amazing leaps forward in communications that have developed, has been truly amazing. But sometimes I wonder whether "progress" is always a good thing.

Take the other day, for instance. I attended the launch event of a new dance studio that opened in Beijing. It was a cold day with slippery ice on the pavements. Yet many people had made the perilous journey to watch the show and wish the owner well in his new enterprise. The owner was suitably pleased that so many actually showed up, but as people went to congratulate him, he spent the entire time answering SMS texts that others who hadn't made it to the event were sending in. I'm sure he wasn't meaning to be rude, but the overall effect left a somewhat bitter taste with some of his well wishers.

A colleague of mine told me she had a similar, but different, experience in Germany. She had been invited over for morning coffee to a friend's house; but when she arrived the hostess was on the phone. Despite the fact that my colleague had only limited time, her friend continued to chatter away about totally inconsequential things for another 15 minutes, even though she knew that time was short. Again, the implication was clear – my colleague who had been invited over at a specific time was deemed less important than someone who had just happened to call.

This kind of behavior is especially common in businesses. How many times have you gone to a shop or an office for an appointment when the person you are seeing picks up a telephone call, and then deals with the matter over the phone before dealing with your problem? Why should it be that a telephone caller gets priority over someone who makes the effort to go all the way to the office?

I sometimes wonder if this is a generation problem – old fogies like me not understanding that the youth of today appear to do everything faster and in smaller chunks of attention than the way we used to do it in the "good old days". But again, recent events make me question even that assumption.

I had been invited round to a Chinese friend's apartment and turned up at the agreed time. My friend – who is over 50 – bade me sit down and then continued to bash away on her computer to finish a project she was working on. Fifteen minutes later (which I had filled by playing Sudoku on my mobile phone!) she offered me coffee, only then to start a 20 minute conversation on the phone with her mother while I was expected to go and search for the coffee jar in her kitchen.

Later she asked if I was ready for lunch as she was feeling hungry herself. "I'd love some," I replied, knowing she was a good cook… at which point she put on her coat to go to the shops, insisting that I stay at her home and wait – another 15 minutes – before she returned. Then, after lunch she insisted on doing the washing up and tidying the kitchen for 45 minutes while I was expected to hang around waiting for her.

I gave up the unequal struggle in the end and made my excuses and left, determined that this would be the last time I accepted an invitation from this lady. I have no reason to believe that she was wanting to be rude (she had insisted on me coming round after all) but the message was clear: someone she had invited round simply wasn't that important compared with some of the other things going on in her life.

It's the same with people who cancel appointments at the last minute. Another friend was expecting three people over to lunch and had gone to a lot of trouble to get things from the shops and prepare the food. With just 55 minutes to the appointed hour she got a phone call to say that one of the three friends was not feeling well, so the other two had decided they too would not show up. No one, it would appear, had thought anything of cancelling, after my friend had put herself out for them. (They were not asked back at a later date!) This same inclination to cancel appointments at the last minute is, unfortunately, something I have encountered regularly here in Beijing.

Which makes me wonder … do people today really have different values from the older generations? Does basic courtesy and politeness not count for anything these days? Or is the human race in general becoming more selfish in its behavior? I have to say, I very much fear it is the latter.

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