Saturday, April 01, 2017

I am not a robot

Lately I've had numerous opportunities to connect with the strata manager of my building at home. It's been an opportunity to, ahem, bond. First I leave a message on his phone, and nothing happens. Then I leave a second and third message, and eventually receive a short email reply. I figure Martin* is just not a "chatting on the phone" kind of person so I laboriously type up the details of my slightly complicated situation, and he replies in a very formal and factual manner. And so on continues the correspondence.

The most recent message I received was a very legalese reply from "the committee" seeking the consent of Lot 3 to proceed with plumbing works, to be paid for by strata if a common issue and by Lot 3 if not. Blah blah blah. While the actual proposal was reasonable, I found myself almost unreasonably angry at what I perceived as a stubborn refusal to relate to me as a person. I wanted to scream at top volume in the train carriage where I was sitting that "I am not just Lot 3 - I am a HUMAN BEING".

Do we take the time to smell the flowers?

This problem is not just to do with Martin. It seems to me that relating to people as human beings and making connections with one another is an increasingly lost art. Some of my neighbours also prefer to leave notes under people's doors than knock and express their grievances face to face. We are invited to prove we are not robots when filling out online forms. And surrounding me on the train is a collection of so-called humans staring at their phones or devices, seemingly oblivious to one another.

The most I tend to raise from my fellow passengers would be a politely mumbled "sorry" when a bag bumps against my arm. Occasionally I will encounter someone willing to laugh together about our close shave with the doors closing, or mutually raised eyebrows when the kids don't stand for their elders. Sometimes the guard will make a brief detour from his usual script to inform us about the weather, or make a little joke. Those attempts to appeal to our human-ness always make me smile.

Perhaps a reason I am so affected by the humanity void in these circumstances is that I've observed what happens when it is taken to the extreme. I've seen ex-soldiers break down in tears of regret and shame for the things they did to their fellow human beings in the course of a working day, because they were trained to dehumanise the other. And I've seen the vacant look that takes hold when they're 'on duty'.

Obviously, there are times when it is appropriate to retain a professional distance in order to 'cover our arses'. But at what point can we well and truly say that we have taken it too far? In the case of Martin, it would make such a difference to me if he expressed just a smidgen of personality. And a quick chat on the blower can go such a long way to ironing out simple misunderstandings.

So, as Martin continues with his busy day - drafting email replies that won't get him into legal trouble, and arranging fire safety assessments - I like to imagine that he stops to smell the flowers, or help an old lady across the road, or smile at a child. At the end of the day, surely these are the things that make us human, and the other stuff is secondary.

*not his real name

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