Martinis on the Titanic

March 22, 2011

In the interest of full disclosure, let me get something out of the way:

Sometimes I can be an ass.

In my usual state I’m a laid-back kind of guy. I’m relaxed, I don’t obsess over things, and I don’t give in to the “We’re Doomed!” frenzy when things look bad. However, there are certain moments when I’m working, writing, or simply focused on doing something I like, that I find it extremely irksome to be interrupted by someone who just wants to talk, has a few minutes to spare and decides to poke me for a quick chat. If you’re on the other end of the phone and I seem irritated to be talking to you, I most probably am, but do not worry, that is just me being an ass. Please, accept my heartfelt apologies. I know that my behavior is considerably rude and, though I try to get better at it, I know that sometimes I fail. Deeply.

But, since I can’t promise you that my behavior will magically stop one day, the least I can do is tell you what you can do to minimize the chances of me going haywire on you. First, let me explain what the source of many of my frustrations here in the 21st Century is:

Hyperconnectivity kills.

All right, not quite, fair enough, but it can be annoying as hell. We are so intertwined with the fabric of the Internet that we have reached a point where it is way too difficult to pull back and disappear. To find solitude amidst the army of Twitters, Google Talks, MSN Messengers, Facebook chats, emails, SMSs… you name it. We have created a Babel Tower of connectivity so steep that I fear we may have lost our ability to function somewhere along the way towards always-ON status.

Nowhere is this more evident than when you absolutely must focus on the very single task at hand, to the point of banishing everything and everyone else from your mind. At that precise moment, under pressure, the Universe will mercilessly bomb you with instant messages, unread emails and friend requests, and you need to know when to say no. If you are an easy procrastinator, managing these distractions can be daunting.

However, there is hope. Hyperconnectivity is an annoyance that is endemic to the Internet and, as such, there is no point in fighting it. You have to learn how to tame it, make it work with you rather than against you. As a general rule, I am almost never signed into GTalk, or MSN. I do very rarely check my Facebook page, because honestly I don’t care for it, and Twitter is something I only check on my iPhone, which is conveniently silenced and tucked away in my coat during working hours. If something is so urgent that it cannot wait, your best bet is an email, or the office phone. All this may seem excessive, but even with my sheer determination in the quest for ninja-like invisibility, distractions still manage to find their way towards me almost every day. And then, when all the other carefully deployed measures have failed, is when I need to master the most difficult skill of all: dealing with people who “just want to talk”.

I respect my peers, and my friends. I firmly believe that their time and attention are precious resources that should not be taken lightly. And so, I try to never abuse them. This means I will probably never call you unless I actually have something to tell you. Sounds simple, right? Well, apparently it’s not.

The fundamental problem is that whenever I am contacted by someone, I assume (erroneously, of course) that they operate under the same code of conduct, and since they’re calling me they must surely have a powerful reason to do so, so I feel compelled to answer. It’s not like me to leave someone hanging, and I find it really difficult to ignore the call (because, again, I don’t like to be ignored when I call to say something important). Therefore, I will most likely pick up the phone or answer to your chat, if only out of pure social etiquette.

Unfortunately for you, that is not to say that I will be pleased to hear your voice. For courtesy’s sake, I will try to mask my impatience and I will endure a little bit of small talk while my brain allocates 100% of its resources to figuring out why the hell you’re calling me and, most importantly, what I need to do in order to end this call as soon as possible. Since I have a short fuse, this process typically only lasts a few seconds, and if you’re not quick to reveal your intentions, I will ask you point-blank. At this point, I have stopped whatever it is that I was doing, and I am completely focused on you, which means that if there is something you wanted to tell me, you would do well in telling me now. Of course, I understand that sometimes people just want to talk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if that’s what you want, please say so. I will either politely tell you that I’m busy at this point and that I will call you back, or I will make up my mind and stop trying to put an end to the conversation so we can both relax and talk about the movie we watched the other night.

It may seem irrelevant to the untrained eye, but there is a profound difference between the two mental scenarios described above: in one, I am dealing with your call as a short interruption of my workflow. An interruption that should be managed and terminated as quickly as possible so that we can both resume what we were doing, which was surely more important. As such, I am listening to what you’re telling me, but I’m not really focused on you just yet: deep down, I’m still processing my main task. You may steal some brain cycles from me, but the ship is staying its course. A good example would be you calling me because you need me to send you some file, remind you of a phone number, etc.

The other scenario requires a complete interruption of my current activity, and a mental relocation in order to ensure that we are both on the same page. It’s a conversation that may extend for a few minutes, and that requires my full attention. You may be having a terrible day, or you just got fired, or maybe you can’t stop thinking about the pretty girl that smiled at you in the bar last Saturday. Either way, I’m not getting off the hook so easily. It is a Titanic-like wreckage, and you and me will be sipping Martinis on the deck until the band stops taking requests, so I might as well sit back and enjoy it.

My point is that in any normal conversation between human beings, context is necessary. When you call me, you need to be aware that I don’t have any way of knowing which of the above scenarios I’m dealing with. It’s that lack of information that I find extremely annoying. My lizard brain reaction is just an attempt to figure out the context of the situation, and once I have that context I can function properly, and stop being an ass.