Attention Lurking in the News #3: On Courtship and Friendship


“The End of Courtship,” an almost tragic piece in the New York Times (Sunday, 1/13/2013, by Alex Williams) sat on my desk for days, taunting me to take it on, even as it reduced me to mute pessimism.  Who could not sympathize with young people immersed in the alternate reality of smartphones, texting and sexting more comfortably than ‘face time’ – an ugly term for something essentially miraculous.  No one seems to have coined “ear time” yet, but telephone conversation is sliding gradually down into the same ‘social delete’ file.

The growing absence of real-time attention seems to underlie the crisis among 20-somethings who, after the hook-up culture of college, haven’t a clue how to enter a more grownup m.o. where actual courtship can occur.

On behalf of the 20-somethings mentioned by Williams, I felt bereft.  A callow college grad whose idea of a date was to text a girl at 10 p.m., with the grand idea that she join him and a bunch of his friends at a bar! (Probably a sports bar, splattered with wide screens blaring football.)  Ah, the hook-up scene, devoid of romance, an insult to public intelligence.

On the other hand, I’ve taught college kids in their 20s and a bit older, and most manage to muddle through.  They learn the intricacies of coded text and communicate at breathtaking speed, compared to how folks of my generation used to slog along with dial phones, awkward smiles across the cafeteria, and excruciating blind (or blinded by lust and fear of missing out) ‘real dates’ for movies and cheap meals.

Many of my peers never dated in high school.  Nevertheless, or perhaps for that reason, when they got to college my generation clumsily ushered in what used to be called the New Morality.  (Millennials would recognize it as a prehistoric version of hook-up culture.)  That was when ‘good girls’ stopped saving themselves for marriage, and not a few found themselves frantically searching for abortionists.

Nowadays college grads don’t seem to know how to tell dates apart from non-dates or networking dates, let alone courtship.  A few decades ago things may not have been as impersonal as hooking up, but today’s 20-somethings have my sympathy.  Maybe so many prefer to socialize in groups because it takes pressure off those struggling to earn a decent income in a long recession, who can’t afford dinner and a show.

No doubt there’s some kind of safety in numbers.  When that clueless guy surrounded himself with friends before inviting his first-time ‘date’ to a bar, his pals were his posse and his vetting panel.  He probably hoped they’d help draw this new girl out, and he’d see if she liked the same people he liked.  Rational so far. But waiting till 10:00 the night of the date to text her? That’s what made him a twerp.  No respect.  Would he do that to a friend, or someone he wanted to become a friend?

Here’s where friendship and courtship cross paths.  Both require respect, and both run on the quality of attention.  It’s what makes dates and courtship real rather than virtual.

Let’s take a broader turn here, into friendship.  We need a wider spread of sympathy, beyond the 20-somethings to everyone whose friendships and love lives have suffered from the impersonality and brevity of smart-phone communication.  The public budget of face and phone time have been subjected to painful cuts across the board, and many of us are bereft.

My own courtship and marriage happened before e-mail, and though my husband and I have smart phones, we almost never text each other.  Thank heavens.  But our friendships have often been short-circuited by digital devices.  And—not to say anything new—as one grows older, friendships take on amazing importance.  Perhaps right up there with marriage and romance.  Let me illustrate with one sad example.

My husband and I used to take ballroom dance lessons from a gifted teacher, a former world champion in that style.  We grew to love her and became friends as well as students.  Then she moved to the Southwest, and—never often enough for us—traveled back East occasionally for a few days coaching the dancers left behind.  At first she would phone us a few weeks before each trip, telling us of the dates and letting us choose our times with her.  These calls gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s lives beyond the necessarily brief exchange of small talk during lessons.  Each time she called it was a joy to hear her voice again, a pleasure to be thought of.

After a year the phone calls gave way to a more efficient system: group e-mails. ‘Hello – I’ll be in your area 3 days next month….  Let me know the lesson times you’d like and I’ll get back to you.’  We missed her perky voice, but at least we could send her a chatty e-mail reply and get a warm response.

Then her e-mails morphed into text messages.  We did not check our cellphones as regularly as our computers for e-mails, and sometimes discovered a notice from her when few or no lesson times were still available.  Texting left no room to chat. We still had her e-mail address, but using it seemed so yesteryear.  We began to wonder whether a friendly e-mail might be an imposition.  No one called anymore except fundraisers, robo-venders and the odd dinosaur friend.

Our lovely dance coach got married, had a baby, and hasn’t done much traveling since.  Phone conversations with her belong to the distant past.  I imagine it’s like that for many people who no longer call when a text will do.  Surely they miss the sound of others’ voices, the chats, and feel deprived of priceless, genuine human contact.  Not that they’d say anything about it.  They might be branded untechno-savvy.

It’s not just the voice that matters, of course.  ‘Face time’ (ugh!) is even more precious, for the giving and receiving of a steady gaze–that is, if those doing it aren’t trying to sneak in a few texts at the same time–plus those almost forgotten subtleties of facial expression, body language, and shared silence.  Delivering attention in person is the gold standard.   As mentioned before [See Introduction & Welcome], full attention is empowering.  But when ‘face time’ isn’t possible, the phone call comes in a close second.

On the street I overheard a young woman excusing herself on her smartphone: “I called you because I’m too lazy to text.”  ‘Gee thanks,’ I thought snidely.  Then I thought of our dear former dance teacher, and how thrilling it would be to get a similar call from her.  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you chose to be lazy,’ I would say. ‘It’s wonderful to hear your voice.’  Then we’d chat, and reconnect, and I’d close by telling her to be lazy and call me anytime.  It should happen to all of us.  We all need that kind of attention.  It makes friendship and courtship real.