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The new rudeness is silence.
I first became aware of this during the dot.com bust of 2000, when I was working as a marketing executive for an Internet software startup in San Francisco. This was one of those companies, still very much in evidence, that was run by men under thirty-years-old whose background was in the computer sciences and the Internet. They worked eighty-hour weeks regularly. Their favorite cuisine was cold pizza washed down with warm Coke, and they were barely capable of spoken language. They dressed like skateboarders.
Few had any manners. The founder and CEO of the company for which I was working — as a marketing executive responsible for selling the product to Fortune 500 companies — was a young German who had cut his business teeth in Silicon Valley, at one of the very large computer equipment companies. He had no personality, but he had invented what appeared to me to be a very good software product. The trouble was that his rudeness, characterized by his silence in response to the pesky questions of employees, and his silence during sales or marketing presentations to clients, added tremendous weight to the effort to sell the product. Marketing and sales, he sniffed — silently — were beneath him.
Many such have made millions in their start-up business endeavors, and I, who had devoted a career to working in corporations, was smitten with the idea of stock options and the probable millions that I would make too. So, putting my suits and neckties in the closet, I too took to Levis, although I drew the line at warm Coke.
I retained one other habit that I could not shake. I had good manners.
I always returned phone calls. I was considerate of my clients and their real wishes. I did not bully people in order to make the sale. When I emailed someone, I used full sentences, full words, full thoughts. Above all, when asked for an opinion, I gave it, expecting that, since my opinion was being sought, it would be considered.
But I often felt that my manners rendered me beneath contempt by those who ran this company. I was considered old-fashioned, too genteel for my own good, and not decisive enough. My manners were responded to with impatient silence, as though I would never, ever get to the point.
I left that company, the last I ever worked for, six months before it went under to the tune of sixteen million dollars in venture capital investment. The CEO left for New Zealand the day after the failure, I expect silently, and as far as I know has not visited the United States since.
Once I left business myself — in order to write full time — I figured that this new rudeness would also be left behind. But no. I’ve come to understand a subtle variant of the new rudeness, which is not based on the need for business dominance, but rather is being accepted in social circles as the new way of being polite.
Here are a few instances… You issue an invitation to friends to join you for a weekend in the mountains, and they simply don’t respond. You leave a voicemail asking someone to call you back, and he doesn’t. So you ask again, and he doesn’t, again. A long-term friend no longer returns your voicemails, and will give no explanation for why, other than a friendly avowal that there’s nothing wrong at all, followed by continuing long silence. Or your friends email you, inviting you for a weekend in the mountains, and you respond right away that you’d love to join them, “What can I bring?” etc., etc., and there is no more information offered. The invitation is forgotten or ignored by the people who issued it, and the matter is never brought up again.
It’s the worst when the silence is hidden behind a veil of smiling good will. You’ve called someone for an answer that you both realize you really need, to a question that you’ve left for that person in emails and voicemails many times, and when she picks up the phone, she regales you with patronizing good humor and the thought that you’ve been on her mind many times recently. Then, as a kindly afterthought, she hurries to the answer to your question. With regard to your many unanswered messages, there is only silence.
Everyone acts as though there never was such a relationship, never such invitations, never such questions. Silence reigns, the good manners that would enable a forthright conversation go out the window, and we arrive at the very summit of the new rudeness.
No response is not enough. The 18th century British statesman Lord Chesterfield wrote that “manners must adorn knowledge, and smooth its way through the world.” I doubt that there are many in the United States now who would understand what Chesterfield was even talking about.
(This piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.)