From time to time there are situations in life that remind me of some of the more notable but less often discussed aspects of our existence. I find myself in a somewhat ambivalent position when it comes to other people. I like reading in public places and tend to be at least a reasonably articulate person and also tend to be at least somewhat sociable, but at the same time I am deeply shy, have a strong distaste for talking to people on the phone, and tend to be a bit of a recluse much of the time. Like many people who are somewhat ambiverted, I need a certain amount of a certain kind of social experience and also a certain amount of solitary time to think and write and reflect in privacy without any other critical voices aside from my own. I find it greatly distressing to have to interact with people more than necessary, and even when I do find it necessary I tend to feel that personal interaction is often a sign of failure as much as an opportunity for success. I enjoy friendly chatter with a bartender over dinner, but at the same time I like shopping for groceries in the automated registers that do not require personal interaction unless something is wrong.
I don’t know how common this ambivalence is. I suppose that one reason I have tended to greatly enjoy personal interactions with wait staff or bartenders is that they are paid to be nice and being a friendly enough person myself I do not mind paying a certain premium for personal service when it comes with friendly interaction in the midst of my voluminous reading. Like many people, I tend to find genuinely friendly interpersonal interaction somewhat rare in my life. Those people who have to interact with others without being paid a premium for it (like cashiers or customer service agents for various insurance carriers) tend in general to be a pretty awkward lot, lacking the sort of graciousness in communication that makes it easy to deal with them. For many people, myself included, personal communication is something that takes us away from what we would rather be doing and involves us in asking questions of people who may not be able to answer the questions we have or be able to do anything about it in a timely fashion. Such people may like to be left alone to their computers and their routine existence and find it a bother to deal with people who want them to do something or look up something. I know I tend to be at least somewhat annoyed when people ask me to do things for their own benefit that don’t really have anything to do with my own ordinary duties or interests. I cannot suppose this annoyance to be something that is my own alone.
My own personal experiences have convinced me that a great deal of the move to automation in professions is not something that is forced on us by corporate desires to replace wages with capital expenses (although that does play a part) but actually corresponds to a genuine interest on the part of many people to avoid uncomfortable interaction with other people. This is by no means a new thing. Thomas Jefferson, as I reminded a friend of mine recently, installed a dumbwaiter in the White House that allowed him and his elite dinner companions to avoid having to deal with the awkward reality of slavery. A variety of cooking staff toiled in the kitchen to create the daring and unusual dishes, many of them imported from Europe, for Jefferson and his guests while remaining out of sight to them. Jefferson was a man who prided himself on being a defender of liberty and was viewed as such in his time by not only other Americans but by other elite Europeans of liberal opinion who saw themselves as part of an enlightened group of people that had risen above the narrow bigotry and prejudice of the past. Of course, they were wrong. We can look back on such people and see the vestiges of slavery that remained in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the imperial horrors in Africa and Asia that were then beginning, and the industrial wage slavery that was then in the process of beginning, and see them as hypocrites. But are we any less hypocritical ourselves? Part of the reason it is uncomfortable to interact with cashiers and customer service agents in a way that it is not awkward to interact with bartenders and waiters is that we get the feeling that the latter often enjoy their job, especially when it comes with a lot of generous tips and good conversation, while we are generally convinced that the former do not enjoy their job at all but do it simply because they cannot get buy without doing something.
And that makes a big difference. Even if people only like interacting with us because we are polite enough not to make it a drag to interact with us and because they are paid well enough to enjoy it, that is still some sort of enjoyment in our presence, and it is to be preferred to a grudging and resentful attitude about interacting with us. Most people, myself included, greatly prefer to interact with people who want to interact with us. One thing that separates our particular generation from others is that we seem unwilling to deal with any other sorts of interactions with others at all. And this is a great danger. Not all interactions are going to be positive. There are going to be times where we need to convey unpleasant realities to other people or where other people have something unpleasant to tell us. A great deal of the rise of impersonal communications and very distanced interaction with others has come about because we neither like to be the bearer of the recipient of awkward communication with others, and because we do not like being either, we first try to outsource such efforts to those who find it less awkward or find less personal means of communication when what we have to say is awkward. After all, most of us will tend to want to avoid interaction as much as possible with those whose company we do not enjoy. And we tend not to enjoy the company of others because their ratio of carping criticism to friendly interaction far outweighs what we find to be acceptable (which is something like ten positive comments that we can believe to one criticism or even neutral comment). It may not be right that we tend not to greatly enjoy interaction with others, but it certainly appears to be a very common aspect of our existence.
There are all kinds of consequences to this. One of them is that we miss a lot of positive interactions that we would not otherwise have because we do not realize that even those people we may consider to be a bit more negative than we would appreciate often have strikingly humorous or witty sides to them as well. While we may wish that other people did not have the sort of rough edges they do, it is quite sure that other people wish the same of us, and yet we all have to weigh and balance the extent to which it is worthwhile to be around people who are intelligent and insightful and who share a passion for living a godly life but who may not be as socially competent as we would wish. After all, other people are making the same sort of calculations and judgments when it comes to us, gauging the extent that they enjoy our interactions while dealing with the less enjoyable aspects that come with such interactions. On what grounds and to what extent do we value dealing with other people? Do we only value people whose company is pleasant, who listen patiently to us and make few demands of us, who share our beliefs and opinions to a great degree, and who are tactful enough not to frequently criticize us? If so, there will not be very many people who we will get to know, and likely fewer as the skills of interpersonal interaction become more rarely taught and practiced. What the consequences of this will be remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to make us any less isolated as human beings in a world of servile technology and resentful people.