Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lonely Americans -- a high-tech problem? -- April 26, 2012 column


Traveling solo as a newspaper reporter many years ago, I stopped at a café in Central City, Neb., on a Saturday night.

“We’ve had more lonely women eating here tonight,” the hostess announced in a flat, booming voice. I looked around, and the room was filled with couples.

“I’ll put you in the corner,” she said loudly. She felt sorry for me, but I was having the trip of my life, seeing America in a little red Nissan on the company dime.

It was hopeless in 1984 to try to explain the difference between traveling alone and traveling lonely – and it still is. Americans love independence and prize freedom. We fear and hate loneliness.

The Census Bureau’s report this week that “nonfamily households” – people living alone or with unmarried partners – jumped 16 percent from 2000 to 2010 prompted another wave of lamentation about our lonely society. A closer look revealed that households with people living alone rose just nine-tenth of 1 percent while unmarried partner households soared 41 percent during the decade, suggesting that people do still cuddle up.

We are knee-deep in books and articles about lonely Americans and the rise of social media. The Atlantic magazine stirred a predictable stew of anxiety with its May cover story, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The answer from author Stephen Marche: not exactly.

“Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media are doing to us,” writes Marche. “We are doing it to ourselves.”

At the same time, “the more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” says Marche.

Nobody ever got poor telling Americans how miserable they are, but are we really that sad? Sociologist Claude S. Fischer at the University of California-Berkeley says reports of American loneliness are greatly exaggerated – and they’re nothing new.

While the headlines might indicate a loneliness epidemic, “we have received such diagnoses for generations,” Fischer wrote in Boston Review online. “The 1950s – the era of large families, crowded churches, and schmoozing suburbanites – brought us …the best-selling `The Lonely Crowd,’ which landed David Reisman on the cover of Time.”

Fischer debunks the idea that people have fewer close friends than ever. The 2004 General Social Survey that found that about 25 percent of Americans had no one with whom they discussed “important matters” – compared with only 8 percent in 1985 – reflected the way the questions were asked, not a dramatic decrease in closeness, he says.

As for blaming technology for declining sociability, the “Middletown” studies were all over that phenomenon in the early 20th century. In their 1929 book about life in Muncie, Ind., Helen and Robert Lynd reported “increasing isolation” and indications of “shallowing friendships.”

“The movie, the automobile and the radio” made men less dependent on friends in times of leisure, and women were more likely to talk to friends on the telephone than to see them at home, the Lynds wrote.

One woman told researchers, “I don’t see my friends at all…It was different with my mother. She and her friends were always in each other’s homes.” Another said, “I do very little visiting – mostly keep in touch with my friends by telephone.”

And those were the good old days. Substitute email or texting, and we could be talking about today. Someday concerns about our devices promoting isolation may seem just as quaint.

Worrying about technology makes us feel like victims of forces beyond our control. That could keep us from seeing – and reaching out – to the lonely people who live on our street, go to our school, or sit in the next cubicle.

The loneliness that should worry us, Fischer writes, is “the loneliness of the old man whose wife and best friends have died, the shunned schoolchild, the overburdened single mother, and the immigrant working the night shift to send money home.”

The hostess in that Nebraska café may have thought she was helping a lonely stranger by seating her off in a corner. But she was wrong. I wanted to hear her story and the life stories of the couples all around me.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

`Hopefully' fought the law -- and won. Now what? -- April 19, 2012 column


The bad news came in a tweet.

“Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update…We now support modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.”

The message couldn’t have upset the grammar police more had the Associated Press’s Stylebook instead said that we now find starting a sentence with “me and him” or describing something as “very unique” acceptable.

My immediate reaction: You can have “we hope” when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Wrong is wrong, I grumped. Hopefully means in a hopeful way, as in, he hopefully began his audition. Not, we hope, as in, hopefully the Nats will win the World Series.

Is using hopefully wrong a modern phenomenon? Undeniably. So is hearing little children spout words that once would have earned a mouthful of soap. Hearing something frequently doesn’t make it right.

I know, I know, far more important changes take place in society every day. But I’m a purist, if not a word prude, an English major. Like a Marine, once an English major, always an English major. Most people don’t keep dictionaries in almost every room of their home. Most people lead happy, productive lives misusing hopefully, in the modern way.

The AP Stylebook calls itself the journalist’s bible, and it’s the law in matters of spelling, word usage and punctuation for most newspapers and many other publications. If it says to spell out whole numbers below 10 and figures for 10 and above, journalists do. In March 2011, the stylebook decreed that henceforth we would omit the hyphen in email -- but keep it in e-commerce and e-book. That was a big day.

But hopefully? Stylebook editors tried to hold the line, reminding writers and editors in a 2009 tweet: "`Hopefully’ means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.”

That fine distinction vanished this week. Several major dictionaries have acknowledged the new usage, and the AP decided it was time.

My “New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” – in the den on the first floor -- says hopefully came into use in the 1600s, but the modern usage that “some find erroneous” popped up between 1900 and 1929. Aha, something else to blame on the 20th century.

When The Washington Post ran a story about the stylebook’s capitulation, more than 600 readers commented online. Many were relieved that they can stop worrying about the silly rule. Others were appalled that the grammar scofflaws have won. Again.

To accept the modern hopefully is to be a clear-eyed realist. I know from personal experience, teaching writing to college students and adults, that no single topic prompts more bewilderment than the rule on hopefully – none, that is, except not relying on spell check.

Speaking of which, the AP’s surrender on hopefully came just days after the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication announced it was scrapping the requirement that students pass a spelling test before graduation. Starting this fall, the school will test grammar skills and word usage, but not spelling.

Everybody has and uses spell check, the reasoning goes. Yes, but spell check will break your heart.

My copy of “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” – in my home office on the third floor -- warns, “In the sense of ‘let us hope,’ this adverb inflames passions,” because many writers and teachers hew to traditional usage.

“So writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write `they hope’ or `with luck.’ With luck, writers and editors will avoid wooden alternatives like ‘it is hoped’ or ‘one hopes,’” the Times’s manual advises.

Columnist Clyde Haberman, in his “The Day” blog on the Times site, wrote that Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, said there will be no change in policy regarding hopefully for now.

It’s up to all of us to be our own word standards editors. The AP isn’t ordering anyone to use hopefully in the modern way. With luck, we can carry on. Let us hope.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stop doing three things at once. Really. -- April 12, 2012 column


Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell may be widely respected as a politician, diplomat and businessman, but at home he’s just another dad on the losing side of the tech battle.

When his young daughter does her homework, she listens to music on her iPod and watches television at the same time.

“How can you do three things?” asks perplexed dad.

“Daddy, it’s different now,” she replies. “We can do that. You can’t.”

Mitchell, 78, told the story at a Washington conference the other day, adding, “I don’t think that’s true, but it’s something that a person thinks she can do three things at the same time and do them all well.”

And who doesn’t multitask? It’s the way of modern life, a necessity, and we all think we’re great at it. Researchers, though, say we’re not. Yes, we’re doing more things at the same time – but badly. In fact, the people who think they’re the best at multitasking usually do it more poorly than others, research shows.

The message is starting to sink in. “The Distracted Mind,” a special, is airing on PBS, and last month’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, devoted a session to “Your Brain on Multitasking.” The most-read Harvard Business Review blog post for the last 30 days has been “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” by bestselling author Tony Schwartz.

Schwartz writes: “Tell the truth: Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend to take notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you’re driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn’t?”

All those ordinary activities actually cost us productivity, he says, citing research that when we split our attention, we increase the time it takes to finish a task by 25 percent.

Schwartz advises business managers to cut meeting time, stop demanding instant responses and encourage staff renewal through afternoon yoga classes, group walks or even naps. It’s nice to think about such things, but few of us live in a world with approved naps on the job.

He offers more plausible tips for individuals to boost their productivity. Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes. Schedule thinking time. Take real and regular vacations.

Schwartz isn’t alone in encouraging people to stop and smell the roses -- without taking a picture and tweeting it.

At South by Southwest, author and business consultant Peter Bregman offered a tough-love plan to reduce multitasking. Changing habits means changing your environment, he began. Put the cell phone out of reach – not just on the back seat but in the trunk. Or leave the cell at home when going out with the family for the evening.

Kill the Internet connection to avoid constantly checking email. When you do multitask, make sure the tasks are compatible, he said. Bregman bikes around Manhattan, getting a workout while he travels where he needs to go.

Multitasking works efficiently when the tasks call on different channels of the brain, David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, explained.

It’s easy to fold up laundry and listen to the weather report on the radio because the tasks call on different brain channels. Driving and texting rely on the same channel, and that’s dangerous.

Multitasking skills do improve with repetition, said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who hosts “The Distracted Mind.” But, multitasking and other cognitive skills peak at about age 23, he said, and it’s downhill from there.

So, it’s true that younger people are better than older people at multitasking -- but not preteens like George Mitchell’s daughter. Sorry, kids.

And let’s give Mitchell credit for knowing he can’t do three things well at the same time. Even in the digital age, father knows best.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mind reader could have told feds not to buy shrimp at $4 each -- April 3, 2012 column


Nobody ever woke up to a front-page news story about government frugality. That would be a dream.

It’s not news when federal workers actually do their jobs and are careful stewards of the people’s money. But this week Americans learned that federal bureaucrats at the General Services Administration had willfully blown through nearly a million dollars on a conference at a posh resort near Las Vegas in October 2010.

“GSA rocked by spending scandal,” read the headline on the lead story in Tuesday’s Washington Post.

The “Management Deficiency Report” by GSA’s inspector general describes in exquisite, and maddening, detail the excess of managers in the Public Building Service while they planned and put on the four-day conference. An administrator insisted that the meeting be “over the top,” bigger and better than any before, and ignored suggestions of ways to pare costs.

Three hundred employees of the western regional offices of the Public Building Service, the agency that manages federal workspace, gathered at the M Resort Spa and Casino for supposed training that included lavish receptions, dinners and party favors. And that was after federal managers paid a consultant $12,000 to find possible locations for the conference. The managers also took repeated trips to scout out the venues. Planning alone cost $136,500.

The inspector general concluded that “many of the expenditures on this conference were excessive and wasteful and that in many instances GSA followed neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.”

The chief of the GSA fired two deputies and then resigned, and several managers were placed on administrative leave.

There will be more to this story. It is after all an election year, and Congress and the White House were shocked, shocked. To be fair, we’ve not seen much in the way of federal spending scandals in the Obama term. But this is a doozy. President Barack Obama was outraged, and senators and representatives decried the waste and abuse.

For the taxpayers who foot the bills and pay the salaries, the scandal broke at a sensitive moment. Preparing our tax returns, we inevitably think about what we’re getting for our money. I don’t know about you but when I’m looking at how much I’m paying in federal taxes, I focus on the National Institutes of Health and the National Park Service.

“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” 20th century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, and his words are inscribed on the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. Alas, Holmes’s fine words ring hollow this week.

Civilized society? No, taxes are what we pay to entertain federal workers -- $32,000 for a mind reader, $44-a-person breakfasts, $6,000 on specially minted commemorative coins, $75,000 for a team-building exercise that involved assembling two dozen kids’ bicycles. Really, I want my money back.

We don’t get to choose how our tax dollars are spent, of course. We have to trust the government to get it right. The sad truth is, we don’t.

Trust in government is at rock bottom, and the new IG report offers 822,751 new reasons for Americans to distrust their government. That’s how much GSA spent on the conference, $822,751.

In Holmes’s quote – “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society”—“we” implies a shared commitment to a common vision for society and a shared belief in the power of government to help.

That sense of community and that fundamental compact between people and government are threatened. Too much of our language is aimed at separating us, focusing on what makes us different rather than united. We need leaders who will help us refresh and renew the compact.

The good news in all this is that the inspector general’s office did its work. It devoted a year to find out what really happened, and the investigation had consequences. People did lose their jobs, something that occurs rarely in the federal government.

But we never will be able to retrieve the money we burned for 300 shrimp at $4 apiece in a rich resort outside Las Vegas. Taxpayer dollars were squandered there, and so was taxpayer trust.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.