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The world is NOT your living room.

September 15, 2010

There is an interesting disconnect in the little city where I live: frequent and enthusiastic professions of devotion to community combined with chronic bad manners. Against a more or less constant buzz of admiration for our warm and welcoming neighborhoods, plenty of people don’t think twice about doing all manner of things that actually undermine community: letting their children run wild where others are trying to enjoy a meal or a concert; letting their dogs do you-know-what in neighbors’ yards; or using leaf blowers before 8am on weekend mornings. Particularly vexing to me is the widespread assumption that it’s appropriate to dictate personal taste. The idea of “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it” cuts no ice with these folks. At the same time, challenging the above-mentioned behaviors, even gently and indirectly, is likely to elicit shocked accusations of intolerance. My better angels counsel that these folks are not malicious; they truly yearn for genuine community and have simply lost their way. (My worse angels are less charitable, but they’ve been told to keep quiet right now so as not to undermine my case.) Still, it begs the question of how these neighbors ended up so confused about tolerance and courtesy.

The other night I happened to catch a fragment of a television commercial (for which product or service I honestly cannot remember), and the gist of the tag line was “the world is your living room.” I immediately shouted, “You know what? It’s NOT!” and repeated it, along with a few other words I won’t share here because I’m complaining about other people’s bad manners. It was a rich moment, both gratifying and aggravating. I don’t think TV commercials predict where we are headed so much as reflect where we are. And where we are is that too many people behave as if the world is their living room. The boundary between public and private space has eroded and as a result, public life is more irritating than it needs to be and private life is less restorative than it ought to be.

I have a theory that confusion about public and private spaces, and its impact on behavior, began when they started putting air conditioners and stereo systems in cars. Once everybody started keeping their windows rolled up all the time and choosing their own audio entertainment–as opposed to engaging with the outside world in the form of whichever radio station brought the least static–a paradigm shift occurred. Whereas traveling on public thoroughfares had been a cooperative venture that entailed awareness of one’s surroundings and a modicum of common courtesy underpinning traffic rules, drivers began focusing more on what went on inside their vehicles and less on the outside world, e.g., traffic and weather conditions. Add cell phones, CD players, DVD players and mobile Internet browsing, and it’s a wonder any of us get where we’re going without either having a wreck or dying of aggravation.

Anyhow, thanks to cable television and wireless Internet connectivity, we now have 24-hour access to a near-infinite array of information and entertainment from gazillions of sources via an ever-growing assortment of devices. We can be non-stop media consumers in the living room or in the car or on a public sidewalk or in the bathtub. Consequently, we’ve gotten turned around about public versus private space. Since our mental and physical spaces naturally reflect and influence each other—feng shui, anyone?–when we lose track of the distinction between public and private realms, it plays out both ways: how we think and how we act.

Once again, we aren’t keeping up culturally with where technology is taking us functionally. No longer tethered by telephone lines, television antennas or modem cables, it feels easy–and right, somehow–to carry our private spaces around with us. Being able to use your phone, watch a TV show or read the paper online when and where it’s convenient, is wonderful. But we’ve unintentionally let it subvert community by encouraging us to abandon good manners. In an authentic community, people with lots of different perspectives, tastes and priorities are continually rubbing up against each other. It’s rarely clear-cut where your rights end and my tolerance needs to begin, and good manners help us negotiate those gray areas. They muffle the sharpest corners and smooth the roughest edges, creating time and space to think before speaking or acting (or posting on the local blog). With the ability to retire to our own virtual space any time, though, it’s tough to remember that we aren’t really at home–we’re out in public (or possibly even in somebody else’s actual space)–and ought to behave accordingly.

There’s a flip side, too. Our own living rooms should be where we get to let our hair down and relax; where our best “company manners” can appropriately take a back seat to plain speaking and candor; and where we get to determine which and how much of the outside world (literal and metaphorical) to admit. But if we are carrying our living rooms around with us all day, how do we take refuge when we get home?

It’s no wonder some advertising people think “the world is your living room” is relevant and resonant. I’d rather it made us cringe a little and think very hard. In a real community, nobody treats the world like their living room; and everybody’s living room offers a retreat from the world. I say, let’s find a way to get right side up again about our private and public spaces, and reclaim the rewards and responsibilities of each.

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