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Living in Oblivion

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2016-01-22


I know it's foolish to make grand, social/cultural pronouncements based on entirely anecdotal evidence, but I'm doing it anyway: I'm convinced that we're living in an era of almost unprecedented obliviousness when it comes to any kind of reasonable public conversation or interaction. And it's not just bad manners or rude behavior or inappropriate comments that I'm talking about; it's gotten way beyond that. This is a time where people say the most dumb-assed things imaginable and not even realize that they've done anything wrong.

Again, my evidence is all anecdotal, and while I know that's no way to build an argument, I'm convinced that anybody reading this probably could list a similar number of examples. I think most people have just learned to shake their head now when they hear something that might have once caused their jaws to drop. Which is too bad, because some people really need to be called out when their obliviousness becomes almost a toxic force of nature.

Take this hospital nurse, then, who was trying to make small talk with a postpartum woman who had just delivered a beautiful daughter who had Down's Syndrome. After congratulating the woman, the nurse asked about the baby's general health, and when the woman said that the baby had a heart defect that would eventually require open-heart surgery, the nurse sighed. "That's too bad," she said, "especially when you consider how many Down's babies develop leukemia later on in childhood. That's really hard." And then she left.

Good Lord. It's hard to imagine a more cruel response to a woman who had just endured the trauma of childbirth, especially to a child already in the ICU unit. And yet I'm certain that the nurse wasn't acting deliberately cruel, she was just criminally oblivious. It reminded me of that viral baseball video from two summers ago, where a young woman absolutely buffaloed the grandmother next to her as she tried to snag a foul ball. The girl got the foul ball, completely unaware of the grandmother crumpled in her wake. And the girl held the ball triumphantly over her head, for the cameras to see. Later you see her make a tiny glance to the wreckage she caused, this human being, and you see the girl's reaction to this, which is: Wow. Bummer. And then back to shaking the ball over her head.

And by the way, I'm aware that people stick their feet in their mouths all the time, I know people miss-speak and embarrass themselves, I know that everybody has that shameful moment they'd like to take back when they didn't mean to hurt somebody. But this isn't that. This is people refusing to perceive that their actions are having any affect on anyone else. The people who feel bad about that clumsy comment at least have the decency to have a conscience that will keep them up nights; the truly oblivious, it doesn't even register on their radar. They're not cruel, they're worse than cruel: they're unaware.
I'm with a friend at a party, he's out for the first time in months because he's going through an excruciating divorce and is unsteady on his feet. But he's giving it a shot; good for him. I see a mutual acquaintance approach, a boorish guy, not my favorite, and after handshakes he asks after my friend's wife. Quietly, painfully, my friend talks about the impending divorce, and instead of picking up on my friend's obvious discomfort, the boor booms out "Well thank God you don't have any children!" Not "I'm so sorry," not a compassionate "I hope you're doing okay." Just a bulldozing, thoughtless comment. My friend snaps back, "You're right! I guess I'm HAPPY!" and gives me a beseeching look and I get him out of there. And the boor clucks a bit as we leave, like, Jeez, how rude. And goes back to the party, untouched, unaware.

I know people with Asperger's Syndrome have trouble picking up on subtle emotional signs from other people, but Jesus Christ, Asperger's doesn't affect 100% of the population, does it? I don't know who or what to blame for this phenomenon--I'm leery about laying it at the feet of technology, again, of the impersonality of the Information Age, but damned if I can find a more likely culprit. Those two instances I've cited have happened in the past two months, and I can think of another dozen or so equally thoughtless examples in that same time frame. (FYI, it's amazing to me how incredibly thoughtless people can be towards pregnant women. I mentioned the hospital nurse earlier--her words were directed toward a friend of mine--but when my wife was pregnant I couldn't believe how oblivious people were when talking to her about her impending childbirth. Everybody couldn't wait to tell her horror stores about dangerous childbirth experiences--including mothers (!) who had to share their own traumatic histories. Childbirth is scary enough on its own, you'd think that people would have an iota of compassion. But nope.)

There used to be a treasured social skill known as "reading the room," the intuitive ability to perceive the mood or sensibility of a particular social environment in order to proceed in a socially appropriate way. Like so many other social skills, however, the capacity to "read the room" has diminished so greatly that it's virtually non-existent. It's become apparent that it's hard to read the room when you're socially illiterate.

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