The silent brotherhood and close relationships

Published 4:15 pm Saturday, April 24, 2010

I travel around a lot — too much, but one does learn things from spending time in the company of strangers, such as the fact that too many young American men suffer from a desperate lack of social skills.

I’m not talking about dancing the tango and ordering wine and engaging in witty repartee, just the simple art of extending yourself in a friendly manner to someone you don’t know, which is crucial in any job in which you brush up against the great unwashed public. (Or in politics, or spreading the gospel, or simply living a rich life in multivarious America.) Over and over and over, you run into young men with the personalities of warehouse security guards.

Young women get the hang of this more easily. They’re able to bring personal warmth to professional duties and greet the weary traveler in a way that instantly makes you love Hilton hotels, or wherever you’re spending the night. So many young men, on the other hand, seem to be in severe pain in their blue blazers. They dread your approach across the hotel lobby and they look at their shoes and say, “Yeah?” as you stand there, hoping to find out where the business center is.

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What happened? Are these sullen boys the victims of feminism, marginalized, repressed, just because they have testicles? Are they on powerful medications? Maybe the prevalence of texting among the young is making them inarticulate.

The Pew Research Center tells us that 75 percent of the 12-to-17 crowd have cell phones, and more than half of them text-message every day, 50 messages a day on average, but many of them send a hundred or more. Three hundred is not unusual. The study by Pew says, “There’s now an expectation that teens will contact each other via text, and they expect a kind of constant, frequent response.”

If you sit in the library after school, text-messaging to people across the room (“Hey, whassup? RUOK? 🙂 L8R” ), you’ve successfully eliminated 98 percent of the nuance of face-to-face dialogue, the delicious nuance and also the awkward stuff, like when you send a big textual hug (“((H))”) to people you’ve never actually put your arms around — you’ve skipped some essential steps in gaining intimacy.

If you don’t pick up the fine art of small talk — those little jokey exchanges with the bus driver, the security guy, the cleaning lady, the newsstand guy, the waiter, the bartender — you’re missing one of the pleasures of life and narrowing your world severely, as if you’d taken vows of silence in the Order of Yo Bro.

If you resort to e-mail for any difficult communication (“Dear Meghan, I am sorry but after our big fight about cleaning the bathroom last Wednesday I have fallen in love with someone else and I am really, really sorry, but also I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Goodbye. Andrew.”), you are in retreat from reality, and this is a strategy that only has a bad outcome. You will learn nothing from it. And a person should never pass up a free education.

People smarter than I have written about the difference in socialization of young men and young women: women wired to form close interpersonal relationships as a step toward romance, intimacy, a stable family life within a tight-knit support system, and men wired to beat other men senseless with clubs and seize the big butt of the wild swine carcass and thereby win the loyalty of the large-breasted, blue-eyed babe who is wired to mate with a winner, not a loser.

All of that is true, I’m sure, but I’m not looking at the big picture here, just the small daily aspects of life, which lend it savor and tunefulness and chewability. That includes free-form, rambling, open-hearted conversation. Sometimes you find it in bars, sometimes on airliners, sometimes after church, at coffee hour. It is fundamental to a sense of belonging in the world. Basic confidence begins here.

We can talk L8R about bad spelling and whassup with the acronyms — my concern is that electronics, which seem to open up new vistas in the world, may be shutting us down. Put down that cell phone, good sir, and look me in the eye and tell me something. How are you? Good. I like those tattoos. And the big safety pin in your ear. You from here? No? You’re from Oklahoma? Really? Where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain? Cool. Awesome. Totally.

Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.