Over the course of a few years, my friend and I developed a telephone tradition whereby we would randomly hang up on each other. Actually, it began as any evolutionary development does: with an accident. A terrific storm came through and snatched phone service away, and I found myself talking to static. Nothing remarkable, but I believe the germ of an idea had been planted. About a week later the line was severed again as I was in the middle of a thought. This time there wasn’t a storm cloud to be seen, and the phone was in perfect working order.
Sure, when it first dawned on me what my friend had done I considered taking offense. But I couldn’t deny a welling sense of liberation that far outweighed any thoughts of recrimination. The next time we spoke on the phone, my friend was describing travel plans he’d been developing. He was excited because the junket was to be funded in part by a Costa Rican social exchange program… but I didn’t hear the rest because I hung up on him. There was no enmity involved. My action was not premeditated. I just got up, placed the handset on the cradle, and went outside for an evening walk.
We never brought up these conversation-halting incidents in any formal way, but when are social conventions ever discussed? “Okay, now this is where I take your hand and pump it up and down a few times. Fine, fine, and thus are we bonded, my man.” It would have been bad form. It’s not something we needed to discuss in any case. Our unwritten rules were that either of us could hang up as whim dictated, and all hang-ups were final. No explanations, no call-backs.
Eventually conversations between my friend and me became more efficient. We knew that we might be disconnected at any moment, so it became necessary to get the important information out of the way as soon as possible. This adaptation, in turn, further informed our disconnection behavior, which fed back into adaptation, until we were using the phone more like an intercom. “Lunch tomorrow?” “Sounds good.” “Maybe somewhere up at the-” Click.
The primary result was that we had far more time to conduct other matters of business. The secondary result was that I started hanging up on other people. Like any habit, it’s a difficult thing to constrain by arbitrary rules. Perversion seeks ubiquity. But as I was offending my dwindling base of unenlightened friends, the question became ever more clear to me: why should we be the puppets of social expectation? Like a mating ritual among eunuchs, courtesy seemed borne upon some residual social inertia from a more formal age, at least as it pertains to our interactions with other individuals.
I recognized that, for most, change happens slowly, so I tempered my behavior accordingly. It became a balancing act, but I learned how to play the game without compromising my dignity. Still, the thoughts persisted: courtesy is founded upon a certain set of social expectations, which are further dependent upon a predictable chain of events. But if the chain of events were circumvented might not that obviate the requirement for courtesy? How can we be expected to willingly observe obsolete paradigms? Is that the ironic burden of self-determination?
By illustration: if you were in a restaurant and knew with absolute certainty that your friend had just been run over by a church bus, would you allow your meal to grow cold waiting for them out of mere courtesy, just to keep up appearances? I submit that you would not! You would eat, and you would eat well. Yet this is akin to the stubborn moral dilemma I find myself in almost daily.
I’ve tuned the slats of the blinds on my front window in such a way as to afford me an unobstructed view of my entire block. From the converted dentist chair in my living room I can see trouble before it sees me. I know when people are going to knock on my door well before they commit their knuckles to the task–a knowledge which renders useless every moment between now and that inevitable knock. If that’s not horrifying enough, there is the widely-held expectation that there will be a delay between a knock and the moment one can actually open a door. Opening that door mid-knock would necessitate a cascade of needless posturing: the mock surprise, the mock embarrassment, the mock laughter, and the mock conversation about how quickly I opened that crazy door. By which time I may as well have spent my day licking a small spot on the wall.
That I should do time behind my own door, waiting until it’s time to open it, is hardly a reasonable proposition. Maybe next time I should just keep on waiting indefinitely, gleefully mirroring the person on the front porch, mock-knocking as they knock, and then stomping off like a child when I never answer my door. And really, is it any great loss? I already know pretty much how it’s going to turn out anyway.