Don’t Look Back In Anger

Yesterday, I watched an older man shaking with rage as he screamed at a younger man on a crowded railway station platform. I didn’t witness their initial exchange, but I’m guessing the younger man had asked the older man to move back from the pedestrian area so that he and his three young daughters could pass, whereby minimising the risk of falling off the platform or being hit by the oncoming train.

Now, when I say the younger man “asked”, the ensuing back-and-forth slanging match suggests it may have been more an aggressively issued command than a polite request. The two men continued to exchange menacing stares and harsh words until a set of train doors conveniently came to a halt right in front of said man-with-daughters.

Ironically, after having been so grossly offended by the older man’s unacceptable lack of social awareness, the younger man shot one final menacing stare back along the platform and called out “asshole”, before proceeding to force his way into the carriage like a salmon swimming upstream, as if oblivious to the tide of exiting passengers. Perhaps he’d never heard that old saying about the goose and the gander. Or perhaps he was, at that moment, literally blinded by his own anger?

I’m not sure when we became a society of such angry people. Is it a recent phenomenon, or have we always been like this?

Today, everyone has strong opinions about everything all the time, and we feel a need to air those strong opinions, in one way or another—often via blogs like this one. We’re frequently incensed by the opinions of others, and we dismiss their words on the basis that we simply disagree, rather than accepting—and being grateful for the fact—that everyone has different perspectives. Typically, anger about the views of others is most evident in the online world. In fact, online anger is so commonplace these days that it’s apparently become de rigueur to issue death threats to anyone who holds even the most unremarkable point of view, simply because it differs, however moderately, from our own.

There are public demonstrations, almost at the drop of a hat, against virtually anything we’re angry about, however relatively large or small the issue—and I almost guarantee that statement alone will generate multiple strong opinions; many demonstrations invariably become violent, despite organisers’ alleged intentions for peaceful protest.

We’re angry about other angry people, in particular terrorists and religious extremists. We’re angry that the concept of ‘terrorism’ has had the entire world almost permanently on edge for more than 15 years; it’s unnerving, even frightening, it’s psychologically exhausting and emotionally draining—and that makes us angry.

We’re angry about the incidence of oppression and dictatorship, war, death and destruction all over the world. We’re angry about the part our own nations play in warfare. We’re angry that the so-called “leader of the free world”, the United States, repeatedly inserts itself into the hostilities of other nations, then involves, almost involuntarily, any nation that wants to remain on their list of so-called “allies”. We’re angry with the leaders of our own nations for not rejecting this or, at least, for not objecting more strenuously or conscientiously.

We’re angry about things that shouldn’t really concern us; chief among these is sexuality. We’re angry about the sexuality of others and about our own sexuality. We’re angry about sexuality that isn’t the same as our own and about sexuality that is the same as own. We’re angry about those who are angry—or, at least, who take issue with—sexuality and we’re angry with those who aren’t angry—or, at least, who don’t take issue with—sexuality, or with those who are angry about sexuality.

Our indigenous people, the so-called ‘first Australians’ (a description which almost certainly angers them), have an ongoing seething rage about the European invasion of their land in 1788, as well as everything that’s happened in the ensuing 229 years; many post-1788 Australians share that seething rage with, and on behalf of, our indigenous people.

We’re angry that it took until 1967 for a referendum “to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population“—or, in other words, Australians were asked to vote on whether or not indigenous people should be recognised as actual human beings, rather than capturing them within the “Flora and Fauna Act” as animals. We’re still angry that indigenous folk were, for so long, not recognised as human beings. We’re also angry that so many people are still so bogged down with anger about it taking until 1967 for said referendum.

And on the topic of anger-by-proxy, we live in an age of ‘outrage culture’ where many of us are, for whatever reason, angry about something on behalf of someone else. Never before have such levels of referred anger been so prevalent. We’re outraged about something that’s happened (or not happened) to others. We’re often outraged on behalf of a less-privileged class of people—typically, “less-privileged” by comparison with ourselves and despite us having no first-hand experience of the conditions about which we’re presently outraged. We’re outraged about the assistance that isn’t forthcoming to ease or resolve these situations. We’re even outraged by the lack of outrage of others. Outrage is, of course, another word for anger.

One ethnic minority doesn’t much care for another and so there is anger and hostility between the two (or sometimes more) of them, whether here in Australia or at home.

Some Australians are so angry that they use guns to maim or kill others, such that it seems that someone in, for example, western Sydney is shot on an almost hourly basis. And many angry Australians evidently decided, at some point in the quite recent past, that carrying knives around with them as they go about their day-to-day business, and stabbing anyone they have even the slightest disagreement with, is normal behaviour; some claim their knives are necessary for self-defence against other extremely angry Australians. Many of us are angry that this should be the case and we’re angry that more isn’t being done to stop it.

We’re angry about domestic violence and violence, generally, perpetrated by men against women—in fact, we’re so angry about it today that you’d almost think it never existed before about ten years ago; some of us are angry about that unbalanced view, too. We’re angry about the (seemingly) increasing levels of violence in today’s society, generally; we’re angry at inaction to curb societal violence, but we’re also angry about action that is taken to curb societal violence and we’re very angry about the perceived knock-on effects of some of those actions.

We’re angry with our Governments; we’re as angry with the prevailing political parties as with the opposition parties. In fact, we’re angry about politicians generally. We’re angry about their behaviour. We’re angry about their perceived elitism and dishonesty and piss-taking and out-of-touchness. We’re angry about pre-election promises that aren’t honoured once they’re swept to power. We’re angry about virtually everything they do and, more likely, don’t do.

We’re angry about gender equality, religious equality, income equality, marriage equality, social and class equality, ethnic equality, indigenous equality, equal opportunity, so-called ‘postcode discrimination’, freedom of speech, civil rights—essentially, we’re angry about anything and everything that we can or can’t do, and all the levers and mechanisms we perceive to play a part in such matters.

We’re angry about the destruction of trees and parklands for the construction of housing, roads and other infrastruture, yet, conversely, we’re also angry about a lack of housing, roads and infrastructure. We’re angry about historical elements of our built environment being destroyed to make way for new elements of our built environment. We’re angry about our built environment becoming increasingly high-density. We’re angry about the appalling cost of housing. We’re angry about a perceived onslaught of foreign investment in said high-density accommodations and we’re angry about the ever-decreasing ability of first home owners to afford to buy their own home.

We’re constantly angry with our fellow road users. We’re angry with drivers who hog the right lane on motorways. We’re angry with drivers, particularly truckdrivers, who ‘tailgate’ on highways. We’re angry with drivers who we perceive to have cut in or otherwise cut us off on suburban roads. We’re angry with virtually everyone on our clogged inner-city streets. We’re so angry that, at some point, the phenomenon of “road rage” became an actual thing.

We’re angry with the drivers of over-sized vehicles, because said vehicles are too big, take up too much space on narrow roads, block our forward vision, and are too slow. We’re angry with taxi drivers because they’re usually crap drivers who pilot their vehicles erratically and who stop anywhere irrespective of legality or impact. We’re angry with cyclists just because car drivers always are; we’re angry with cyclists because they’re too slow and they hold us up and there are now stupid laws in place that mean we must drive at least one metre away from them; we’re especially angry with cyclists who use the road when there’s an available bike lane.

Basically, our roads are almost exclusively populated by angry people.

We’re not engaged with our neighbours; we’re no longer talking to people in the street; in fact, more often than not we’re going out of our way to avoid eye contact altogether. We’re more likely to call the police about a neighbour’s noise than to ask the neighbour if they could take the decibels down a notch or two. We’re more likely to ignore a bewildered tourist with a map than to ask if they’re lost. We’re hesitant to help anyone who appears to be in any kind of trouble and we’re almost certainly not going to intervene in any kind of street conflict.

In all of this, do we ever ask ourselves why? Is it because you never know what someone will do? You never know how people will react? Someone might get violent? When did our world become this way? Is our collective hesitancy and mistrust and fear a product of our anger? Or is it the cause?

Or has it always been this way?


*Disclaimer: references to “we” and “we’re” are used, intentionally, to reference the broader society, and are not intended to suggest that the anger in question is that of the author, nor anyone known to the author, nor necessarily to anyone reading this statement right now.

Thanks To Everyone I Ever Knew

“Thanks to my mother and father, <name> and <name>, and my sister <name>; it’s the continued love and support of family that made this possible. Thanks to all the brilliant people at <organisation>—especially <name>, <name>, <name>, <name>, <name> and <name>—for the long hours, and the many days and nights of dedication they put into this project. Believe me, I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t for you—tonight is as much for you as for me. So many thanks to my best friends in the world—<name>, <name> and <name>—for sticking by me through this whole thing and giving me all the support and love I could need—I love you guys. If I missed anyone, apologies…you know who you are. Thank you all.”

So what was that, then? Must be an Oscar’s acceptance speech, right? Guess again. But surely whoever said it must’ve just won something—a Grammy or an Emmy? Nup, try again. A Logie or an ARIA or a Brit Award? Nope, it’s none of those.

Regular imbibers of this (sometimes) humble opine-fest will know by now that, despite occasionally dabbling in it myself, I don’t really hold social media in the highest esteem (yes, I know—oh the irony!). Why? My reasons are many and varied—most, I daresay, not of the slightest interest to avid users—but I won’t bang on about them here.

Whatever my misgivings about the individual and societal impacts of social media, there’s one thing, in particular, that’s really struck me about the way that so many users of this ubiquitous all-pervading beast have come to engage with fellow users.

No, I’m not about to launch into that tired old accusation of narcissism, so often leveled at social media users.

Actually, I’m not often lost for words, but it’s proving difficult to find a single word that accurately reflects what I’m trying to say—’altruism’, maybe? Whatever the word, the action I’m trying to describe seems somehow less calculated than the really narcissistic stuff; that is, the actions themselves are clearly intentional, but the result possibly isn’t. Or, at least, not consciously. Maybe. I think…

The selfies, the check-ins, the constant updates about our every thought and move, and don’t even get me started on all the photos of food and drink! All of that stuff falls into the narcissism bucket. We make almost unconscious assumptions that everyone who can see what we post wants to know everything about what we’re doing, where we’re going and how we look, whether at the time or after the fact; they want to know exactly what we’re thinking and to hear all about the fiddle-faddle and frippery of our day-to-day. But there’s something else going on here too—perhaps a variant of altruism, if not true altruism.

It’s that “everyone” thing. “Can everyone please copy and paste this to their own status?”… “Thanks everyone for all the <insert topic> messages”… who is this “everyone”? Does “everyone” only apply if we generate a 100% response rate from our list of social media comrades? Or, in the event of a less-than-100% hit rate, do we actually use it to make those who didn’t react feel guilty?

Or has “everyone” just morphed into another of those catch-all words, like “guys” before it, that’s now used to address any proportion of a total number of people? For example, if I had 479 Facebook friends and 42 of them posted birthday wishes, is an 8.7% hit rate sufficient for me to use “everybody” when thanking them? Or would I only say it if I wanted to have a go at the 91.3% of so-called Friends who made no online reference to my birthday at all?

And as if all the variations of friends and “everyone” wasn’t confusing enough, Twitter users (whether celebrity or pleb) also have “followers”, which is quite similar to “fans”. But there’s something almost sinister about “followers”. Charles Manson had followers. David Koresh had followers. L. Ron Hubbard had followers. Do the likes of us ordinary folk really want “followers”?

Or maybe that’s the answer? Or even the question? Despite the disturbing lack of clarity that’s permeated this post thus far, maybe I just found the answer to the question I’ve been trying but largely failing to pose?

Coz whether or not we consciously set out to achieve a response rate, there’s a reassuring sense of popularity that comes with the number of Retweets and Likes that our social media posts receive, isn’t there? We like “everyone” looking at what we’re saying. We’re being noticed. We’re being agreed with. We’re being envied. Why else would we post in the first place? It’s ego-inflating.

YouTubers have long had “fans”; maybe it’s become so much a part of the new normal that the rest of us now think of our own social media buddies as fans, too? After all, they’re following us because (presumably) they want to, because they like us and want to know about our day-to-day existence, because they want to see photos of what we’re doing, where we’re going and what we have; basically, because they want to envy us—as if they were our fans.

And, knowingly or otherwise, we now respond accordingly.

Every time something happens, we take to status updates as if we’re sweeping gracefully up onto a stage, accepting a big shiny lump of gold or glass, then giving thanks, acceptance speech-style, to everyone we ever knew. It’s nice, I guess. It’s a bit tedious too, to be honest.

Oh and in case you hadn’t worked it out yet, that ‘acceptance speech’ back at the beginning of this—it was a Facebook post about going for a mini-break in the mountains (and don’t worry, I’m not publicly shaming anyone I know—believe it or not, there are others in the world who rant about this stuff too!).

The post was written by a lady whose baby hadn’t slept properly, if at all, for most of its short life; she and her partner had taken their infant daughter through one of those sleep training assessment course thingos for about a year. Once they’d finally gotten her into a wake/sleep routine that seemed to be working, they decided to take themselves off for dinner and an overnight stay at a luxury resort, far away from where they lived in the US state of Vermont, leaving the child in the care of relatives.

So no, despite the Academy Awards acceptance speech histrionics, it was just someone going out for dinner and thanking a bunch of people for some stuff they did. It’s unlikely this lady—or anyone, for that matter—would ever verbalise such gushy sweeping praise in everyday conversation, but she obviously felt that her much-needed weekend away was the culmination of the combined efforts of all these people, and that they were, therefore, deserving of the praise she heaped on them via social media; that half the people referenced weren’t tagged and, as such, weren’t likely to actually see the online praise apparently didn’t detract from the woman’s desire to post it.

In the olden days, people used to write letters and send cards through the post to thank each other for stuff. Later, they wrote emails for the same purpose. Today we use online public forums and social media to talk about, to talk to and/or thank people who’ll possibly never see what we’ve said (assuming they’re old enough to read at all); it’s a wonder anyone ever feels appreciated for anything any more.

What a different place today’s world might be, if only we quit the Oscars speeches and actually thanked each other again.

The Puzzling Parlance of Please

For Tina and Henry… 
  1. used in polite requests or questions.
    “please address letters to the Editor”

The world’s awash with Trump right now, so I thought an undemanding (if slightly facetious) language lesson might be just the ticket to lighten the mood.

The subject of today’s discussion has long been a linguistic bugbear of mine, though doubtless of little consequence to anyone else (as with the majority of my linguistic bugbears); it’s a word most of us use daily, though it could be argued that it’s not always used where it counts.

I’m still undecided if this misuse is just because we’ve become polite to a fault*, or if people genuinely don’t recognise that there’s a difference. I suspect the latter.

I noticed it again on the train yesterday morning: “Please change at Town Hall for T4 Eastern Suburbs line trains”. There are examples of it everywhere.

If it’s true that there’s a time and a place for everything, “please” is frequently both mistimed and misplaced. There’s appropriate courtesy and there’s courtesy that’s redundant. As in so many cases, it all boils down to context: do the words form a request or an instruction?

It may well be appropriate to kick off a request with “please”—for example, “Please close the door after entering” or “Please don’t feed the birds” or “Please send expressions of interest to the Manager”; we’re not obliged to adhere to these requests, we’re merely being asked to do something (or not).

But there’s no need for said niceties if the sole purpose of the words is to provide instruction or information—“DO NOT USE LIFTS IF THERE IS A FIRE”, “Press red button to open doors”, “Enter your PIN to sign in”, and so on.

So “Please change at Town Hall for T4 Eastern Suburbs line trains” doesn’t work because the “please” alters the context, by turning an instruction into a request—as if Sydney Trains were asking us to change lines, whether we need to or not. Clearly, the words aren’t asking us to do that, they’re simply informing us that we can connect to the Eastern Suburbs line if we change trains at Town Hall station. It’s just a statement of fact, so there’s no “please” required.

Here’s another one I saw recently: “Please swipe security pass to proceed through barrier”. So, do I have a choice? Is there some other way I can proceed through the barrier without swiping my security pass? If the answer is no then, again, it isn’t a request, it’s an instruction. If I can’t get through the barrier any other way, if there’s no alternative to swiping my security pass, there’s no need for “please”; I either swipe my pass or I don’t proceed through the barrier.

Here’s another, from a recent call to my car insurer: “For car insurance, please press 1. For home, contents and landlord’s insurance, please press 2…” and so on. Do I have any choice in the course of action to be taken? Can I either press 1 or press anything other than 1 if I want to discuss car insurance? Or, is it the case that I must press 1 to discuss car insurance? If I have no alternative but to press 1, it can’t be interpreted as an open-ended option with multiple ‘next steps’ available; nor, unless some other generic option is provided (which, in this case, it wasn’t) can it be interpreted as something that I can either do or not do and still end up discussing car insurance with someone. This is simply an instruction so, again, no “please” is needed.

The most likely culprit here is an inability to distinguish between the concepts of instruction, information and request on the part of those charged with authoring, reviewing and/or approving such words. I’m telling someone how to do something, so I must say “please” or it will sound too harsh.

While the line might seem a fine one, it really isn’t; when providing relevant instruction for the benefit of the intended consumer, it’s actually pretty simple to avoid the message being interpreted as harsh: just word it properly.

Example: “Remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner or you will be punched in the face”. Undeniably harsh. Threats of physical violence tend to have that effect, regardless of context.

Refined: “Please remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner or you will be punched in the face”. It’s still harsh. “Please” does nothing to diminish the threat; nor does it negate the requirement to remove said items.

Further refined: “Please remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner”. Closer to OK, but still not quite right. The upshot here is that you have no alternative but to remove any of the named items from on or about your person, if you ever wish to move beyond the security screening point. It’s a mandatory requirement—saying “please” at the beginning makes about as much sense as a 1980s Mum or Dad shouting “PLEASE GO TO YOUR ROOM, YOU AWFUL LITTLE BRAT!” to their hideously behaved nine-year-old (who may or may not have been me).

Final refinement: “Remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner”. This one gets it right. It’s brief and to the point. It’s authoritative without sounding harsh, but neither does it give an impression of being unenforceable or that there’s any alternative—we’re being told, not asked.

So, please, next time you see or read (or even say) “please”, stop for a moment and consider if the words are asking or telling. Keep an eye out for them coz they really are everywhere.

Why not challenge yourself—please see how many redundant ‘please’ pleas you can find.


*arguably an odd thought, considering that society’s moved so far away from manners and politeness in so many areas where they should count, yet it’s also become painfully polite where it’s really not needed.