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Archive for Wednesday, November 3, 2004

People need to know they count

November 3, 2004

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However many billions there are on our planet these days, I think that each of these people wants to "count," to be important enough to be listened to by others. In short, we want our voices to be heard, to matter.

Some people are born into famous families where others naturally listen to what they have to say. Whether it is by virtue of having aggregated power or money, we attend to the words of those in the Roosevelt, Bush, Kennedy, and Rockefeller families.

For the great majority of us, however, we have to work in order to gain sufficient respect that other people will want to listen to us. Whatever our job, if we do it well, then other people will listen to us because what we have to say impacts their lives. This applies to the mechanic who is telling us what is wrong with our car, the plumber who is describing how much it will cost to have that leaky faucet fixed, the physician prescribing medication for an infection, etc.

Authors write books to have their views heard, musicians compose songs about their lives, painters portray views about themselves and their worlds, screenwriters and actors depict their perspectives, and so on. Not only does our "good work" make a statement in and of itself, but through such efforts, others also may want to know our views.

Of course, much of what young children do is aimed at getting the adults to pay attention to them. I still remember the first time I received a letter addressed solely to me. I was 10 years old, and the fact that an adult had taken the time to address an envelope with my name on it suggested that I was a special person.

I think that the popularity of e-mail, beyond its sheer ease, stems from the fact that it shows us that other people think enough to write. People even brag about how many e-mails they receive each day, the implication being that large numbers of other people want to interact with them.

The portable telephone companies and their advertisers understand this "voice" issue very well. Do we really have that much to say that we need to be in contact with the world during every waking moment? I don't think so. Instead, these cellular phones symbolically tell us that we are sufficiently important that we need to have a means by which others can get hold of us in order to get our views throughout the day.

It is irrelevant that the content of such exchanges is absolutely unnecessary for the conduct of the lives of the people who are conversing via cellular phones. As an example, I overheard a student who was walking up the steps of Wescoe Hall at Kansas University. She entered a speed dial, and upon hearing that the person called was not available, she left the message, "I wanted to tell you that I am at Wescoe. ... I'll call back again when class is out." Evidently, the cell phone was the means of announcing her progress through her day.

I need to make a confession here so that you know my biases about telephones. I was raised to believe that a telephone (back when they came in those heavy and clunky black versions that sat on our counter) was to be used only when we had a really important message. To this day, I still try to get off a long distance call as quickly as possible in order to save money, as well as "to keep the lines open for someone who needs to make an emergency call."

Be clear that I share the same motives as the people whom I describe in this column. Just as others want their voices heard, so do I. Why else would I have begun to write these columns in my hometown newspaper? My illusion was that I had some things to say about human beings that other people might find relevant and useful.

-- Rick Snyder is the Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Kansas University.

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