When I was a kid, my family belonged to a church with a rotating preaching schedule. Instead of one priest or pastor who preached every Sunday, our preachers were men (and it always was men) from the congregation and visitors from neighboring churches who took turns preaching.
As a young writer, it was a wonderful education because I got to see the same material presented by many different personalities. There were engineers, who presented the material as efficiently and directly as possible. There were storytellers, who spent an hour looping around before settling on the subject of their sermon. There was a surgeon, who always cut right to the heart of the matter. (Really! He did!) There was an Italian musician whose sermons were always about relationships and full of feeling.
But every preacher started the sermon off by saying, “Good morning,” and the congregation always mumbled a response. Most preachers just launched into the sermon after this, but the more charismatic preachers pretended to get irritated at the lackluster greeting and said, “Really? Is that the best you can do? Good morning!” And we all had to greet him again, louder.
I liked the charismatic preachers because they were more entertaining, but I hated this ritual. Why did it matter how loud our greeting was? The sermon wasn’t a conversation. Some churches do have call and response between the preacher and the congregation, and this church wasn’t one of those churches. We were expected to sit silently and listen reverently. The preacher could have been talking to empty seats after that, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Making us greet him again felt silly or, worse, self-aggrandizing, as if it wasn’t enough that we got up early on a weekend morning to hear him talk. We had to be enthusiastic about it, too.
I always thought that the speaker’s charisma and his approach to the greeting ritual just happened to go together, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between speaker and audience, and I wonder if the greeting ritual was more than it appeared.
A couple of the people I follow on Twitter start each day with a greeting. I take note of this practice because it’s so different than the norm.
Most people tweet once or twice and take off. Or, they use robots to post for them, and they’re not even there at all. Most can be summoned if you talk to them directly, but Twitter isn’t really a thing most Twitter users are present to. I'm using a lot of "them" language here, but I do it, too, because, really, why bother? Everyone knows the Internet is a content hole. You can pour your heart out all day every day and never get a real response. But it’s enough that the audience is there, isn’t it? Billions of dollars are given to startups who can get people in the seats. Getting as much as a 1% response rate is as shocking as a heckler in church, but it’s alright because there are so many people involved. 1% participation can, apparently, drive the Internet economy.
So, what happens when someone comes into this environment and says, “Good morning?” From what I can tell, less than 1% of the audience usually responds, but an interesting thing happens when you note the type of response these greetings get: The responders are enthusiastic. Some even use more than one exclamation point. The 1% responders, it seems, like it when you say, “Good morning,” to them.
For the same reason, I think, I preferred preachers who made us repeat the greeting. (Even if I didn't like actually repeating the greeting.) I knew when a preacher made us repeat the greeting that this wasn’t business as usual. This wasn’t a preacher who was there to pour information into my head.
This isn’t to insult the preachers who emphasized efficiency over entertainment. This was its own kind of compliment. These preachers recognized that our time was limited, that it cost a lot for us to give up an hour on the weekend to come to church, and they wanted to make sure that we got as much from the experience as possible by providing us with as much information as they could in the time that we sat there.
The thing that was endearing about the charismatic preachers was their courage. They dared to start their sermons with vulnerable honesty. They admitted directly that it mattered to them whether we responded or not. It mattered what we thought of the material. It mattered if we were entertained. The rules of conduct were the same. We still sat there quietly, but we sat there quietly as people who knew their response to the material mattered to the person who was talking. We mattered to the person who was talking, and he wasn’t afraid to admit that he hoped that he mattered to us, too.
Ironically, the efficient preachers probably cared just as much about what we thought as the charismatic ones. The only thing that differed was that they believed that they didn’t matter. They were messengers. We were there for information. They served their audience by giving us as much good, clean information as possible and getting out of the way.
This attitude toward the relationship between the speaker and the audience--that the speaker’s job is to present as much good, clean information as possible--is the current default on the Internet.
There is a good argument to be made for this approach. We are busy people. There’s a ton of crap on the Internet, and it is a great service—and a sign of humility—to be willing to push your ego out of the way, sort through all the crap, and share information that is useful and well organized.
The problem with this way of relating being the default is: not only does the speaker disappear, but the audience disappears, too. We create a culture in which “audience” is a synonym for “information receptacle.” Our brains become walking compost bins. Response isn’t only optional, it’s discouraged. It’s a waste of time. Every minute the speaker spends responding to individual audience members is a minute they aren’t spending creating and curating pure information. It is enough to accept this service quietly and put it to good use. Your silent presence is enough.
This attitude has a chilling effect on discourse. Nobody who is aware of the way things Really Work responds to anything anymore because they don’t want to risk getting in the way or, worse, looking ridiculous. Efficiency uber alles. No one bothers to agree, and no one bothers to disagree. Terrible ideas go unchallenged and unchecked and spread, and the original reason for this style of information dispersal—good, clean data—is crushed under the weight of nonsense and downright lies.
So, what really happens when someone opens Twitter and says, “Good morning?” What are they really saying? They are saying this isn’t business as usual. They’re saying, I am not dropping as much information in your lap as possible and then getting out of your way. I’m here to share something that is important to me, and I hope it’s important to you, too, because I’m thinking about you when I’m talking. Even though you are not a physical audience, and I don’t really know if anyone is actually there or not, I’m willing to stand here for a minute and wait for you to respond. If you do respond, I will see you, and your response will make me happy. I want to have a conversation with you, even if you don’t agree, even if you don’t respond, even if you just want to sit quietly and let me to tell you a story.