Medium Fidelity

08/03/2012 01:55 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2012
  • Ira Israel Licensed Professional Counselor

Two of my favorite texts from university explore the impending chaos that would erupt with the fall of the Judeo-Christian ethos. In The Second Coming, Yeats states that "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." In The Greatest Danger, Nietzsche states that "the greatest labour of human beings hitherto has been to agree with one another regarding a number of things, and to impose upon themselves a law of agreement regardless of whether these things are true or false." Nietzsche loathed Christianity but admitted that without agreement to a common set of societal mores, madness and chaos would ensue.

We are now here. Nowhere.

Technology has trumped Christianity as a belief system, and there is no longer an agreed-upon protocol for etiquette in general and for communications in particular. People correspond though text messages, email, IM, Skype, Facebook, Twitter and telephone -- and the occasional snail mail or fax -- and there are no established rules. For the younger generation in particular, it's the wild wild west.

When historians look back on the former United States of Amerigo Vespucci, they will certainly find text messaging to be as efficacious as smoke signals. As a therapist I've witnessed countless couples break up due to misguided, misfired, misunderstood, and mistimed text-messages.

I've heard that 90 percent of communications are provided by visual cues; for me, the tone of someone's voice is equally important. Text messaging and email convey little to sink one's teeth into and can go askew in the blink of an eye.

I'm old school. Years ago I spent weeks combing through the hundreds of pages of Rilke's and Lou Andreas-Salome's hand-written letters and felt the brilliance, passion, wit, poetry, integrity, love, and dedication therein. Correspondence, like therapy, can be art. Or at least artful.

In promoting my DVDs, blogs, and workshops, I've had occasion to send emails to yoga studio owners, bookstore managers, institute coordinators, distribution companies, literary agents, spiritual teachers, physicians, writers, and celebrities. Here are my observations: Old schoolers such as Deepak Chopra, Larry Payne, the staff at Esalen, Arthur Brisbane of the New York Times, and Sting all returned my unsolicited emails within 24 hours. New schoolers -- young, hip, and cool "machers" -- almost never returned my emails. They are obviously -- in the words of Tim Kreider's New York Times editorial -- "Busy!" "So busy." "Crazy busy."

Isn't this an interesting distinction? How is it that sophisticated iconoclasts can find time to return emails whereas people in their 20s and 30s cannot? Is it a question of time management skills? Or is it a question of where the young turk considers himself on the food chain and thus doesn't feel obliged to return emails from people "beneath" him? Or is it a question of propriety, etiquette, or lack thereof?

Personally, I espouse a doctrine I call Medium Fidelity. If somebody -- anybody -- telephones me, then I telephone him or her back. If somebody emails me, then I email him or her back. I try to remain faithful to the medium that the sender employed as a sign of decorum. And I try to respond to all emails and telephone calls within 24 hours. I teach workshops on authentic relationships, authentic communications, and authentic happiness so I cannot afford to be a hypocrite in my personal life. You have no idea how many potential clients are surprised with joy when I answer the telephone or return their calls.

"Oh, you're the first therapist who bothered to return my phone call," I've heard more than a few times.

Here in Los Angeles I've been on the receiving end of fellow wounded healers and rampant do-gooders canceling imminent meetings via email so many times that my ears now hear "Let's get Kombucha next week!" as "The check is in the mail!" Why do people feel compelled to bother organizing putative meetings that they know they are going to cancel? Shouldn't there be a mandatory course given to young people on business etiquette, respect, efficient communications, and scheduling? Most people would agree with Woody Allen that "95 percent of life is showing up," and yet so many people today can't manage to do even that.

It would take an entire book to describe how horrible dating has become since texting became the primary means of communicating, but I will offer my experience as a small business owner: I've employed many young people to help produce my DVDs and websites and the vast majority of them -- after they receive their advance payments -- stop answering or returning my phone calls.

"Saw you called. What's up?" is the text message I receive a few hours after I leave a voice mail that they haven't bothered to retrieve.

Really? You're taking my money but can't accept a phone call or return it in a timely manner? In what parallel universe is this behavior acceptable?

I realize that I'm gliding over many topics here -- busyness, communications, propriety, etiquette, generational differences -- but for me it's about the world I want to live in. Call me idealistic, but I want to create a world where people communicate respectfully, compassionately and authentically with each other. And in this realm, technology -- currently -- is not our friend.

Technology is not our friend because our minds are meaning-making machines, and our current ways of communicating are vague and leave enormous room for misinterpretation. For instance, if a passionate girlfriend is in the middle of a text message conversation with her new lover and he drops off, she assumes that mettle more attractive has garnered his attention. If one is in the middle of a business negotiation and the other party stops emailing for a few days should it be assumed that this is a tactical move or that the other party has lost interest or has gone on vacation?

I don't know what the solution is. Like Yeats, I cannot imagine the next world order in a positive light.

But, as I state in "Mindfulness for Urban Depression," I am old enough to remember a time when a phone call was like a gift and all the people in the home would run to it in anticipation. In just 40 short years telephone calls have become nuisances. Now we rely on text messaging and emails so that we can be afforded the luxury of multitasking.

Is it any wonder why so many business ventures end in lawsuits and relationships end in heartache?

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

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