Wednesday, November 21, 2007

ROGER COHEN: Turkey Tune-Out Time


When I became a U.S. citizen a few years back, I was not asked the meaning of Thanksgiving, but I was asked why the Civil War was fought and made to take an English test in the form of a dictation.

The first sentence of the dictation was: “I want to be a good American.” When the immigration officer was satisfied that I had spelled this correctly, she read out the second sentence: “I plan to work very hard every day.”

Every day!

From that point on there would be no day of rest, no respite, as I became not only an American, but also a good (or at least a typical) one. Mark Penn, the political guru advising Hillary Clinton, writes in his book “Microtrends” that Americans now work “substantially more than most workers around the world.”

He asks: “What’s a vacation to us these days without our BlackBerry?” And he notes that in 2006, 23 percent of Americans “checked our work e-mail and voice mail while away — up from 16 percent in 2005.”

I guess Penn is well paid to produce statistics that help Clinton read the American zeitgeist. What’s clear is the BlackBerry prayer position — head bowed, hands together, thumbs going — is a solipsistic emblem of our age. As the New York-Washington shuttle touches down, 93.5 percent of those on board go into the prayer stoop.

I just made that number up, but the fact is, most BlackBerry-armed travelers are hopelessly susceptible to that can’t-not-look-at-it feeling. It’s not that they believe something has happened. It’s a need — CrackBerry addiction.

Now that work is not a building but a state of mind, thanks to technology and the knowledge-based economy, you can never stop if that’s how you want to live, although simultaneous turkey stuffing and BlackBerry use is tricky.

I asked Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist, why reaching for a hand-held electronic device to e-mail or instant-message — an iPhone, BlackBerry, Treo or whatever — has become such a reflexive movement, one that makes it difficult to embrace vacation as vacation.

She told me: “A BlackBerry poses three problems. Can you manage your need for control? Can you manage your need to be important? Can you manage your need to feel in the know? These are real psychological challenges because at any moment you can jump in and fire off an e-mail and get closure immediately. But it’s superficial closure.”

So you thought you had a communication device when in fact you have an ego-meter? That’s about the sum of it. Because let’s face it, e-mail is a bummer and addiction to it perverse.

First, e-mail is reactive, a wait-and-respond thing, the surest guarantee of inside-the-box thinking. Second, it’s a lousy tool for conflict resolution, a multiplier of misunderstandings. Third, it leads people to say things they would never say face to face. Fourth, once they’re said, they’re recorded in their colossal inanity for all eternity.

What you accumulate, said Thacker, is “interpersonal sludge.”

For some companies, the sludge has become intolerable. Jay Ellison, the chief operating officer of U.S. Cellular, the country’s sixth-largest wireless carrier, introduced “no e-mail Fridays” three years ago after surveys showed employees felt “bombarded.”

“People in the same building didn’t know they were just a floor apart before they started talking,” Ellison said. On the basis that he was getting 300 e-mails a day and spending 10 minutes per hour dealing with them, he calculated U.S. Cellular gained more than 7,000 hours on Fridays for other activities.

“There’s this humongous addiction,” he said. “E-mail chains cause folks to delays decisions.”

It’s time to introduce “no e-mail Fridays” in corporations nationwide and reintroduce Americans to each other. E-mailitis is soul-ravaging — and perilous. According to Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute, 26 percent of all employers have fired employees for inappropriate e-mail use.

Cut use and you cut your liability. Thacker advocates “juggle-switch-and-pivot” skills: go online for five minutes and don’t stay 45. Pivot back to the pumpkin pie.

Then slow down. When Stanley Cohen, the friend and attorney to the artist Alexander Calder, moved to Paris in the 1960s, he ordered The Sunday New York Times. It would arrive the following Wednesday. He would take the paper and store it unread until Saturday night. Then he would place it outside his door so that, on Sunday morning, he had the illusion of finding his beloved paper waiting.

I like that story. It’s a reminder of how not to be a slave to time, of the need to be imaginative and humble in our thankfulness, and of the fact that news can wait a week. A day off to read it is dandy. Turn off, tune out, drop in. And a decent-sized turkey takes five hours to cook.

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