Cents and Sensibilities
By Adrea Gibbs
Even today, the strong-willed characters of Jane Austen’s world would seem well suited to some of the complexities of today’s relationships. And by relationships, I don’t necessarily mean the romantic side of things. Rather, I am looking at the way approaches are made to being resourceful and practical. Many of the personalities actually “think” through things before taking action. Not all, of course, but it seems, to me, that more do than don’t.
So how does that play into today’s society that seems hell-bent on instant gratification? When I find myself agitated by not being able to reach someone right away, the battery of my phone on the verge of dying, or having to wait in line at the drive-thru for someone who clearly ordered enough food for a small army, I check myself and wonder…has convenience taken over everything? I’m not saying that I am longing for the days of yore when people traveled by carriage and got mail by horseback, but that word, convenience appears to have evolved generationally expanding upon its basest meaning.
Of the word, Dictionary.com says the following:
1. the quality of being convenient; suitability.
2. anything that saves or simplifies work, adds to one’s ease or comfort, etc., as an appliance, utensil, or the like.
3. a convenient situation or time: at your convenience.
4. advantage or accommodation: a shelter for the convenience of travelers.
5. Chiefly British. water closet (def 1).
6. easy to obtain, use, or reach; made for convenience: convenience utensils that can be discarded after use.
Looking at description 1, I can say that probably hasn’t changed much from hither to yon, but description 2 makes me ponder. Undoubtedly things had changed considerably from Austen’s time to my youth, and maybe that is to be said for all childhood memories, “things were different then,” but I think the sensibilities of which she wrote specific to the word “convenience,” were more closely aligned then as opposed to now.
Helms Bakery Trucks driving through the neighborhood were a convenience. So were milk trucks, and newspaper boys. Rotary phones were certainly a convenience compared to party lines. So were ice cube makers in refrigerators compared to ice deliveries. But, I wonder, what was given up, even then, in the way of community, from the time when my parents were kids living on rations. People talked. They had to in order to get what they needed, let alone wanted. No Amazon. No Whole Foods. No online banking. Growing up, we personally knew the man who dropped off our milk on the porch, the same guy who weekly picked up my brothers’ diapers for service, or the kid who tossed the paper in the bushes. I remember my Mom having very brief conversations with different people, like the stocker in the grocery store and while they spoke in few sentences, over the course of time, they learned a lot about one another, as how comfortable strangers share familiarities. She would ask how his family was and, in turn, he likewise, to the point of being able to greet me by name. He even gave me a Jolly Green Giant once when a frozen food display was being dismantled. Had there not been a human connection, I may never have had the experience of dancing for hours on end with my Jolly Green Giant. It wasn’t the kind of relationship where he and his family would have been invited over to dinner, but it was kind. It was civil. It was nice to recognize someone and to be recognized.
When I am training people in the skills required for cognizant, purposeful customer service, one of the challenges I task them with is grocery shopping. That is, in itself, fairly simple, but I ask participants to do a couple of different things while they are in the midst of something that, for many, has become a pedestrian experience. I ask them to stop and talk to people in the store, but with specific intent. They must begin a conversation with something like, “Good day. How are you?” Seems simple enough, but the kicker is they have to look the other person in the eye. And smile. Sound easy? It’s not. People have gotten out of the habit of smiling at others, exchanging pleasantries. Next time you are in a checkout line, just try to engage the person scanning your items in a quick exchange of words. It may take some work, but it can have an immediate effect on the immediate atmosphere. The cashier. The other people in line. It creates change in the dynamic. It makes things friendly. Maybe, in Austen’s words, genteel. If you really want to raise the bar, see if you can get the cashier to look you in the eye.
Look around just about anywhere and most likely you will see people glued to their phones. But at what price? Certainly they have established connections through texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever new app has come along in the last thirty minutes, or so they think, but watching families all hovered over matching mobiles, couples seemingly on a date, even groups of students in group solitude is disheartening. Eyes glued to a tiny screen, headphones blaring, and thumbs blazing does not always translate into the skill sets required to interact with others face-to-face. Engaging in a thoughtful conversation can be a difficult exercise, in some instances, at best.
Maybe time is money, so in that regard, sure there is a savings, but at what cost? We may be able to do more, but are we being more productive? Being able to eat and drive, walk and talk, or conduct business 24/7 might just mean we are filling our days with quantity, not quality.
People think it is strange these days when you look at them as you pass on the street and offer up a smile, yet, sometimes, something miraculous happens. They most often smile back. I know, for me, the smile I am gifted from a stranger stays on my own face for a while. Even on days when things are much too hectic, when I can’t get a hold of that certain person right away, my phone inexplicably dies, or I find myself behind someone that can’t seem to sort out what they want on the drive-through menu, though I am no Austen character, I take a breath and try to remember this; while there is something to be said for convenience, we can’t allow it take away our humanity.