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(Link to report repaired)

 If you’re older than 44, that is.

If not, skip the middle bit – it will only make you miserable.

For those older than 44, apparently things only get better.  This is exceptionally good news, because I am 45.  I am delighted that I can now rest assured that all of my miserable friends who are also 45 or older will only have increasing happiness, and I will console those of my younger miserable friends that it is not long until things improve for them too.  Good news all round …

Stephen Moss
Wednesday January 30, 2008
The Guardian 

‘The first 40 years of life is text, the rest is commentary,” wrote Schopenhauer. Setting the watershed as low as 40 is arguable, but Schopenhauer surely had a point, and it may help to explain the results of a new survey that puts our most depressed age at 44. This vast study, carried out jointly by researchers at Warwick University and Dartmouth College in the US, has concluded that happiness is U-shaped: it peaks when we are 20 and 70, but slumps in the middle. “You would expect people to get unhappier as they get closer to death,” says Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University, “but the opposite appears to be the case. It is a mystery why this happens

If we trust Schopenhauer, it is no mystery at all. Your 40s are the point at which the act of composition – climbing the career ladder, having affairs, believing you are the next Montaigne – is replaced by the art of reflection and perhaps regret. How did I fail to become prime minister? Why did I have those affairs? Where is my oeuvre? At 44, those thoughts – as I painfully recall – are uppermost in your mind, and sometimes you will blame anyone but yourself for your failures. But trust me, you will come through it. I reached 50 last year, and far from being distressed by that supposedly defining moment, I’ve never felt better. I now accept that I am deep into my commentary period, and am enjoying it hugely. In your 20s and 30s, you think there is some big secret that is being withheld from you. But there is no secret. No one has a clue what they’re doing or why. By 44 you are distressed to discover there is no secret and that life’s glittering prizes are made of tin. But then comes the getting of wisdom. As Oswald observes, “When you get older, you’ve learned to accept yourself.” You aren’t Montaigne, you aren’t going to be PM, you are just you. In Schopenhauerian terms, will is replaced by art, acceptance and a sense of the universal. You learn to enjoy the comedy of life’s struggle, and happily take your place in this huge and leaking lifeboat.”

You can read the full report of the research (much more interesting that the short taster) here.  Things can only get better.

The report intended to sort out the ceteris paribus correlation, that is whether well-being is U-shaped over a lifetime, or whether previous studies had produced skewed results because some generations, or some cohorts (such as those born in a particular decade) were happier or less happy than others.   Several data sources were used.  Initially data was sampled at random from the General Social Surveys of the United States and the Eurobarometer Surveys in Europe.  Analysis of these data sets showed that well-being amongst American men was lowest around 53 years of age, much later than for American women (around 38-40), and later also than the happiness minimum for European men and women who were both at their most unhappy at about 47. 

If women marry earlier than men, then perhaps the unhappiness peaks at the time that both have to contend with teenage children?  The authors of the report say not: “The well-being U shape in age is apparently not produced by the influence of children”.  They deduce from looking at different age cohorts, however, that while Europeans are about as happy or unhappy as they have always been since the 1950s at a particular age, successive American birth cohorts have – since the early 1900s – become progressively less happy.  This difference cannot, the authors say,  be explained away by a difference in use of language or perception of the meaning of words used to describe well-being in the surveys.

Within Europe there are substantial variations between countries, pooling male and female results.  People in the UK become unhappier earliest (35.8 ) and those in Portual latest (66.1) with most other countries hovering around 49.

Data from the UK Labour Force Survey was used to test the Eurobarometer findings.  Depression and anxiety figures taken from a sample from approximately one million observations shows that the measure of mental ill-health turns around at 46.

The authors cannot provide any answers as to why the graphs should, across 72 countries, take on such a U shape, nor why the troughs appear when they do in each country.  One suspects that the reasons are particular to each country and its culture, although some truths may cross national barriers.  Oswald and Blanchflower tentatively suggest three factors:

  • That individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and quell infeasible aspirations
  • That happy people live longer, so that those who survive to older age record higher levels of well-being
  • That schadenfreude or similar effectively prevents us from repeating the mistakes of our peers

These results may be amusing for us, but they are important for policy makers.  It should be possible from a careful analysis of individual country statistics to work out when men and women are least happy and why.  Unhappiness costs the state lots of money – in days off sick from work, in benefits paid to single parents as a result of divorces, in treating depression and anxiety in adults and in their children, in the criminal justice system.  I’d like to know more about the statistics for the UK, separating out men from women, and looking at the variables – number of children, employment or lack of it, socio-economic status, health and so on.

Which leads me on to a rare burst of cruel British humour from another Prime Minister in waiting.

I have to include this wonderful excerpt from a speech made by William Hague, in the House of Commons on 21st January.  The background is, of course, Gordon Brown’s long lived ambition to unseat Tony Blair and become Prime Minister, an ambition recently achieved without an election even.  Here – in the grand tradition of British Parliamentary oratory – William Hague warns him of what is still to come …

“To see how the post of a permanent President of the European Council could evolve is not difficult even for the humblest student of politics, and it is, of course, rumoured that one Tony Blair may be interested in the job. If that prospect makes us uncomfortable on the Conservative Benches, just imagine how it will be viewed in Downing street! I must warn Ministers that having tangled with Tony Blair across the Dispatch Box on hundreds of occasions, I know his mind almost as well as they do. I can tell them that when he goes off to a major political conference of a centre-right party and refers to himself as a socialist, he is on manoeuvres, and is busily building coalitions as only he can.

We can all picture the scene at a European Council sometime next year. Picture the face of our poor Prime Minister as the name “Blair” is nominated by one President and Prime Minister after another: the look of utter gloom on his face at the nauseating, glutinous praise oozing from every Head of Government, the rapid revelation of a majority view, agreed behind closed doors when he, as usual, was excluded. Never would he more regret no longer being in possession of a veto: the famous dropped jaw almost hitting the table, as he realises there is no option but to join in. And then the awful moment when the motorcade of the President of Europe sweeps into Downing street. The gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish; the choking sensation as the words, “Mr President”, are forced from his mouth. And then, once in the Cabinet room, the melodrama of, “When will you hand over to me?” all over again.”

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War hero, Douglas Bader, lost both his legs in a plane crash.  His false leg is about to be auctioned together with other Bader memorabilia including a single wooden crutch inscribed “to DRSB from Long John” and a Red Cross parcel box dated May 1944 addressed to Bader at Colditz, Leipzig where he was imprisoned. 

Douglas Bader’s father died of shrapnel wounds received in World War I when Bader was just twelve.  Determined from a very young age to become a fighter pilot,  Bader joined the RAF in 1928 after leaving school in Oxford.  He was boxing champion at the RAF college, Cranwell, and captain of the rugby team.  He was even tipped to play for England. 

He became part of the elite RAF aerobatics team but was frequently reprimanded for flying lower than was allowed.  In 1932 he crashed his plane while attempting low flying aerobatics as a dare.    He attempted his speciality, a low flying roll, at below 30 feet – the official limit was 1000 feet.  One wing clipped the ground.  “Bad show” he recorded in his log book.

Both his legs were amputated, one below and the other above the knee.  Nevertheless, with determination, he continued to play golf, to dance, and for a while to fly again for the RAF until he was invalided out in 1935. 

But when war broke out, he used his connections to re-join the RAF, with able-bodied status, and he learnt to fly Spitfires.  The absence of legs even, it seemed, advantaged him:

“It was thought that Bader’s success as a fighter pilot was partly due to having no legs; pilots pulling high “G” in combat turns often “blacked out” as the flow of blood from the brain drained to other parts of the body – usually the legs. As Bader had no legs he could remain conscious that much longer and thus had an advantage over more able-bodied opponents.”

By August 1941 Bader had shot down 22 German planes.  Only four RAF pilots had shot down more.  But his luck took a dive on 9th August 1941 when his own plane was shot down, possibly by friendly fire, and he had to bale out.  His artificial leg got caught on the plane and it was only when the leather straps attaching it snapped that he was able to escape. 

He was captured by the Germans who treated him with great respect, recognising his valour.  General Adolf Galland, a German flying ace, notified the British of Bader’s damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. The British responded on 19th August 1941 with the ‘Leg Operation’– an RAF bomber was allowed to drop a new false leg by parachute to a Luftwaffe base in occupied France.  Having dropped off the leg, the six bombers and a sizeable fighter escort flew on to bomb targets in Northern France, only the weather put them off.

Bader showed his gratitude by persistently trying to escape from German captivity so that his legs had to be taken away in the end, and he found himself in the impregnable Colditz castle from where he was liberated by the US Army in 1945.

In June 1945 he led the victory fly past of 300 planes over London.

After his death, a fellow pilot summed him up thus:

“He was a not particularly pleasant man, by turns arrogant, obstreperous and egotistical, but [he] made use of those qualities to do things which lesser men didn’t have a hope of doing. He was certainly not an angel, but he was remarkable.”

Others are kinder to his memory, seeing him as a complicated man who was rarely understood.  After his war time experiences, Bader raised funds relentlessly for disabled people while working at Shell.  After his death, friends and family set up the Douglas Bader Foundation to continue his work with disabled people, especially those who have had a limb amputated.

 

Raggety had revisited me several times over the years, but remembering him while walking the dog reminded me, as sure as nights are full of nightmares, of another childhood horror.  

My father’s name on his birth certificate is David, but his father (also David) was, so the story goes, drunk at the time he registered the birth, and my father should have been called Michael.  So that is what he is called, or Mike for short.  Always Mike for short.  He is the eldest of three children, followed by two sisters.  One is close to him in age, the other many years younger.

The elder of my father’s sisters had gone to Africa to teach and had met and married there a Swiss agronomist who was tall and handsome and his family were very wealthy.  His mother was a wonderful woman who showered the family with presents.  We used to look forward to real Lindor chocolate at Christmas with its cold melting centre, and one of my proudest possessions as a child was a metal blue “car coat” that she gave me when I was about seven or eight.  I am not really sure what a car coat is, but that is what I called it.  It was a three-quarter length raincoat.  It’s a strange present, when you come to think about it, for such a distant relative to give a child.  Perhaps I needed a coat.  She also gave me a doll which I named after her and who was a very comforting presence. 

Anyway, another present that came from that direction, though I remember it coming from my uncle rather than Madame G******i (as we called her), was a book called “The Heart of Stone” written by a well-known German writer of children’s fairytales and illustrated in pen with line drawings by a well-respected American cartoonist and illustrator, David Levine.  I did not know anything about the author or illustrator at the time.  All I knew was the book terrified me and yet I was compelled at the same time.  It used to have a white illustrated dust cover, but that has disappeared, but the book remains and I have it in front of me now.  

It is the story of Peter Munk, a charcoal burner in the Black Forest in the southwestern corner of Germany.  On one side of the forest lived the glassblowers; on the other side of the forest lived the lumbermen who cut down the trees.  Peter was betwixt and between, spending most of his time in solitude next to his smoking kiln, belonging nowhere and envying both the glassblowers and the lumbermen, such was his poverty. 

Each side of the forest had its own spirit.  The glassblowers had  the kindly Glassman, whilst the lumbermen had Hollander Mike.  Hollander Mike was a revengeful giant of a spirit that struck fear into everyone’s heart and kept them all abed at night. 

Peter find himself in financial ruin and Hollander Mike appears to strike a bargain with him.  Peter follows him down into the dark abyss where Hollander Mike lives and discovers the bargain.

peter-munk.jpg

The most horrible illustration.  Peter is in the depths of despair but seems to be having a nosebleed not weeping tears 

Hollander Mike asks him if his life has not been blighted by his silly heart which makes him feel fear, which urges him to be generous to others when he cannot afford to be generous.  He takes Peter to a room which is full of pickled hearts.  On the jars Peter reads the names of all the most respected men in the Black Forest.  Hollander Mike offers to exchange Peter’s useless heart for a marble heart and a hundred thousand florins and Peter finds himself the next morning a richer but indifferent man.

Life goes on. 

“For two years he travelled, and wherever he stopped he first looked for tavern signs. He went sight-seeing too, but only because he thought he should – for neither buildings, nor paintings, nor music, nor dancing could give him pleasure.  His stone heart remained indifferent; his eyes and ears were blunt to beauty.  All that was left to him were the pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping, so he ate for amusement and drank a lot and slept because he was bored.

And as he wandered aimlessly through the world, he often remembered how happy and gay he used to be when he was poor and had to work for a living, how, in those days, a simple thing like the view of a valley or a snatch of song had delighted him, and how he had looked forward to the plain food his mother would bring to the charcoal kiln.  How could he have laughed so easily at the least joke then, he wondered, when now he could not laugh at all!  Now when people laughed, he turned up the corners of his mouth out of politeness, but his heart did not laugh along.  It was true he was always calm now, but the calmness was empty, and he could never really feel true contentment of any kind.”

Peter determines that he will make money and that will satisfy him.  He surrounds himself with ferocious dogs to keep the beggars at bay, and derides the old hag of his mother who, stooped and frail, hangs around outside his house.  He seeks consolation in a wife, but murders her – striking her with the ebony handle of his riding whip – because she is annoying him.  Strangely, this death reaches even his stony heart and he is reduced to something akin to deepest despair.

killing-the-wife.jpg

Killing his wife 

He returns to Hollander Mike and taunts him, making him believe that the heart that beats in his breast is still the feeling heart, that Hollander Mike’s collection of hearts does not contain him.  Mike’s ugly pride drives him to rage.

“The giant was livid with rage.  He tore open the door to the other room and shouted, “Come and read the labels for yourself!  See that one over there?  It belongs to Peter Munk!  Look how it’s twitching!  Don’t tell me a wax heart can twitch like that.

“It’s wax all right,” Peter taunted.  “That’s not howa real heart beats, and mine is still in my breast.  No, no, you’re not a magician!”

“I’ll prove it to you.  It is your heart – I’ll make you feel it!  And Mike ripped open Peter’s vest and shirt.  He took the stone from Peter’s breast and showed it to him.  Then he lifted the real heart from its jar, breathed on it, and put it carefully in its place.  Peter could feel it beating and could feel glad of it.

“Now do you believe me?” asked Mike, smiling.

“Yes, you were right,” Peter replied, stealthily taking the little glass cross from his pocket.  “I wouldn’t have believed that such a thing could be.”

“Well, now you know.  But come, let me give you back the stone.”

“Not so fast, Hollander Mike!” cried Peter.  He took a step backward and, holding out the little cross, started to pray whatever came into his head.

The more he prayed, the smaller the giant became, until at last he fell to the floor and lay there writhing like a worm.  Then all the hearts began to twitch and hammer inside their jars so it sounded like a watchmaker’s shop.  Peter shuddered and felt afraid.”

Peter runs away, and “all the while, his heart beat joyfully, just for the joy of beating”.

The Glassman appears and finds Peter crying for all the things he did whilst his heart was made of stone.  Peter’s repentence is matched by the forgiveness of all those he wronged and he turns round to find his wife and mother.  He becomes an upstanding, hard-working man, earning the esteem of all those around him.  He was happy with his wife and good to his mother.  He is blessed with a child.

the-baby.jpg

Even the baby has Peter’s horrible nose 

Now I know why I kept the book – the only book I have kept from childhood – for all those years, through so many moves.  I had no conscious memory of the story, only a frightened fascination for the illustrations.

 You come across a huge number of people who say that they are much happier and that their lives have turned round now that they believe in God – I’ve just read about one this morning.  I cannot remember ever meeting anyone who said that they were much happier and that their lives were going swimmingly now that they had lost their faith and become an atheist. 

Which is not to say that people do not lose their faith and still have successful lives.  They never, however, make the causal connection between the loss of faith and the subsequent success, a causal connection that those who have found a faith, or rediscovered their old faith, make between their faith and their happiness.  Why is that?

I was 26. I had just become engaged to be married and been made a partner in the law firm within the same week.  I had a new computer and was charged with building a commercial department where there had not been one before. 

My new client did not look very prepossessing.  He had lost the use of one side of his body, had difficulty with his speech, was a registered drug addict, and had been left with the shakes, but he had a dream.  He wanted to arrange a pop concert at the local football stadium and he wanted me to help by doing all the legal work. 

He did not have any artist in mind, nor any idea how he would go about it, but he knew an accountant about the same age as me who would look after the money side, and later he found someone from a local building firm to deal with the alterations that would be necessary to make the stadium safe for the concert goers.  And he introduced a fifth member to our team, a local entertainments agent. 

My client was on welfare benefits, but he said he could pay me £5.00 a week on account, and more once the concert had taken place.  I was young and needed a challenge.  My partners in the law firm agreed to allow me to take the case on.  Amazing, thinking back on it.  It would not happen today.

Somebody mentioned Tina Turner.  So our motley crew managed to arrange a meeting with the agents representing her in the United Kingdom.  We asked if our venue could be included in the schedule for her tour, alongside Milan, Paris, Barcelona …  For some reason, the agents agreed that she would come and sing for one night providing we could pay her fee up front.

My client did not have any money, so this was a bit of stumbling block, but my senior partner approached the partnership’s bank, Lloyds Bank.  We went to see the Manager and asked if he would lend £300,000 without any security.  He asked around the office to see if the bank staff would want to go to the concert, and based on this scientific sounding, agreed to lend us the money.  Amazing, looking back on it.  It would not happen today.  I think freemasonery was involved, looking back on it, but it did not occur to me then.

Contracts were drawn up, and money was paid over.  Along the way we arranged insurance in case it rained and obtained the necessary licences to allow for the live performance.  We sorted out the stadium and poured over endless spreadsheets.  We persuaded local firms to supply us with furniture for Tina Turner’s dressing room, and flowers.   Tickets were printed emblazoned with the tour sponsors, Pepsi Cola.  I had all the tickets for the concert in my filing cabinet and began to distribute them to the ticketing outlets that we had arranged.

They flew out of my cabinet like fireworks and in only a few days they were all gone.  We asked if we could have another day, and Tina Turner’s management agreed, so more tickets arrived, were sold, more than 44,000 in all.

The day of the first concert dawned and the management arrived to check over the venue.  They weren’t happy with the dressing room and said Tina Turner would not perform unless it was changed.  They specified wall drapes in black and yellow.  Somehow we found these.  I do not remember how.  By now it was all a bit of a blur.

We had the best seats.  My senior partner and some of my friends, and employees from the law practice sat with us.  My senior partner had plugs in his ears.

Dry ice steamed over the entire stage and out of the white smoke a staircase unfolded and the diva descended.  It does not get any better than that for a provincial lawyer.

I still have the T shirt but I never did get all my fees paid.  All the profits were eaten up by those black and yellow drapes.  Every year since then there has been a summer concert in the football stadium.  I can stand in my garden and listen.  I still bump into the accountant and the builder and the entertainments agent every so often, but I have not seen my client for years.  I am glad he had a dream.

The sun came out today after ten days of gloomy cold cloud cover.  I went for a walk with Wolf in the park and we met a springer spaniel puppy and her young owner.  Wolf played and the young woman talked to me.  She did not stop talking and I felt happy that she was comfortable talking to me.  The dogs ran on ahead and we walked through the park.  The ancient oak trees still had no leaves on their bare spiky branches.  They stood like scarecrows in the watery sunshine and childhood nightmares of Rupert Bear and the horrible sticky creature came flooding back.  He was called Raggety and he stalked me for years.

I found a picture of him and he still makes me shiver.

I had another disconcerting experience on the canal boat which I will hang on to as a memory I need to keep.  We only had any hot water if the engine had been running.  And we only had a warm boat once the empty gas bottle had been replaced.  Having a cold shower in a cold boat was not my idea of fun, so I kept my clothes on.  I was also pretty miserable.  I even slept in my clothes on the first couple of nights when everything was so uncomfortable.  They were outdoor clothes chosen for their ability to keep me warm and dry, not because they looked nice or showed me off to good advantage. 

 When we arrived in Bath we were moored outside a sports centre which would allow us to use the showers for £2.00.   As soon as I woke up the next morning, at about 7.30am, I gathered together all the things I needed and paid to get clean.  I left the sports centre at the same time as a man dressed entirely in camouflage gear carrying a huge camouflage rucksack who had been doing the same thing.  He walked off into town, head down.

The point of all this is spent long enough feeling unwashed in less than fresh clothes to realise that I wanted to be invisible.  I did not want people to notice me.  I wanted to keep my distance.  I did not feel like engaging with anybody.  I felt as if I lived in a different world.  This was a novel experience for me.  Usually I can choose to be seen when I am clean, have washed my hair, and have chosen my clothes and shoes from a collection that fills several cupboards and drawers.

I read this article (Jenni Russell, Inequality is closing down our concern for others) in the Guardian which begins with an affecting, convicting, description of the psychological pain caused by inequality.  A working class man describes the internal humiliation he feels whenever he encounters the well-dressed, casually confident middle classes.  He is sitting next to one of them in a waiting room:

“I start sweating, I start bungling, shuffling … You know you insult them … they look at you like they’re disgusted … Straight away you feel, I shouldn’t be there. It makes you not want to go out … It fucking stresses you. You get exhausted … It’s everywhere.”

but is really about the desperate need that most people have to keep on their rung of the ladder, and the disappointment and anger they feel when they contemplate those who stand on a higher rung which leads them to avoid people more “succesful” than they feel.  It is an article which encourages the Labour government to increase taxes on the rich so that the middle classes can feel less poor.  It is a rather self-pitying article, though there are many who would say that I can afford to say that.  The writer concludes:

“…the government has long taken the position that the wealth of those at the very top doesn’t matter to the rest of society. They have concentrated their energy on helping those at the bottom. It isn’t enough. We are all social beings, and we assess our worth by looking at those around us. Labour should be bold enough to start by increasing taxes on the very wealthy – simply because, as a society, we can’t afford to make that the standard against which the rest of us are measured.”

I think a better answer is to look straight ahead rather than up or down.  At work my clients were a couple whose teenage daughter is in a coma.  The doctors have written “Do Not Resuscitate” on her notes.  That keeps everything in perspective.  Makes me want to cry.

For Ismini

Just in case I was getting above myself.

An old friend sent me a link to this Harry Enfield YouTube clip which nicely ties together my previous post with the earlier “Dinner Party” post (here)  – in an inspired way.  I haven’t laughed so much in ages.

 

A few thoughts occur.

Anxiety

I think that all interaction on the internet is prone to produce an anxious response if one is not careful.  For myself, I understand the reason for this.  It relates to the idea of “intermittent reinforcement“, the subject, for the sake of clarity of a separate post in due course, but which I describe here briefly as the phenomenon of never quite knowing when someone is going to respond to your contribution, or whether they will respond at all and feeling anxious as a result.  I believe that knowingly constructing situations of intermittent reinforcement is cruel.  Many of the points that follow are aimed at reducing the anxiety that arises in such a situation of intermittent reinforcement.

New posts

Once you have found a blog you like, you may want to know whether the writer has posted anything new recently.  The most obvious way to check this is to visit his or her site.  Those sites that only interest you vaguely are less problematic than those blogs written by people whom you feel that in some sense you have come to know and like, or whom are your real life friends already. 

Generally, obviously, the more you know and like someone, the keener you are to see what they have written next.  This can lead to frequent checking of the site to see if any new posts have appeared.  If there has been a period of silence since the last blog, a normal response is probably to check increasingly often and then, after a while, to give up and find something else to read. 

Post Feeds

It is usually possible to make things easier for yourself – to reduce the constant checking – by signing up to a “feed” or email alert. 

Feed Symbol

Not all blogs allow a feed.  There is only one reason why a blogger would not want his blog to have a feed.  This is because each new visit increases the number on his stat counter.  And bloggers are judged by the size of the number on their stat counter.  People reading your blog via a feed will not feature in most visible stat counters – not in mine at any rate.  You have to not mind too much about stats to allow a feed at all.  The reality is that a person may read a blog once, and forever thereafter read it only by a feed.  He may read loyally over years, but unless he visits the site, his interest will be invisible to the blogger.  Most blogs do allow a feed or email subscription.

New Comments

However, the blogger’s post may be only part of your interest in the blog.  You may also wish to read the comments that others have made on posts, and also any replies that the blogger has made to comments that you or others have made.  Comments may appear much more frequently than posts and take on the nature of a spoken conversation rather than a more leisurely exchange of letters.  In this case, if you are interested in the conversation, and particularly if you think you may wish to interject, you will want to be able to read comments as soon as they are posted. 

Comment Feeds

Some blogs offer a “feed” facility for both posts and comments, or allow you to subscribe to email up-dates for comments to a particular post.  Both mean, potentially, that visitors’ numbers are depressed, since – as with posts – to read a comment via a feed you do not need to visit the site.  However, you still have to visit a blog to post a comment and there is possibly sometimes a greater likelihood that people will comment if they can easily keep up with discussions as they happen.  And comments are generally good. 

As a blogger, you have to weigh up the advantages and the disadvantages.  I prefer to be able to take a comment feed from a blog I like to read, so I presume that my readers do too.  I provide a comment feed as well as a post feed, and would encourage others, for the sake of their readers, to do the same.

Responding to Comments

Posting a comment on a blog, or a message board, or a forum is not much different from writing someone a letter, but is quite different from picking up the phone and speaking to someone, or meeting them face to face.  There are two sorts of comments.  Those in respect of which you would like an acknowledgement, and those which do not need any sort of reply.  The latter are less problematic than the former.  The former are, I would venture to guess, much more common than the latter.

There is no general rule of etiquette about whether a blogger should respond to a comment.  My own view is that it is polite to respond to every comment for two reasons.  First, because it acknowledges that the person who made the comment has taken time out of a busy day to let you know what they think.  Secondly, because it is human nature to want attention, and most people who comment would, I believe, want their comments read and attended to.  A response is a way of the blogger showing that he has indeed read the comment. 

Besides, I am (usually) only too delighted that someone has commented, and I like to converse.  So responding is a happy thing for me.

I have tried commenting on a few blogs where the response from the blogger is either non-existant or unpredictable, and have found it to be a very unrewarding experience which leads me to desert the blog.  If the blogger does not respond to comments, it suggests that he is not interested in what the person commenting has to say.  In which case, why invite comments in the first place? 

So, should you choose to write a comment on my blog, I will respond to every comment which is published.  If I don’t, it will be an oversight, and you may prod me for a response.  I do not ignore people.

My next problem comes with my response to your comment.  Should I try to encourage a conversation, or prolong a debate?  I do not know the answer to this bit.

How many strokes?

Here, I think the language of Transactional Analysis is helpful in giving us a vocabulary for the discussion.  Transactional Analysis sees all communication a bit like a tennis game, consisting of strokes.  Strokes are good – at least, most people like them. 

The game begins with one person hitting a ball over the net to the other person.  The other person has the choice of letting the ball go without returning it, catching it, or returning it.  If she returns it, the original person has the same choice of returning it, catching it, or stepping aside and letting it out.  So if I say “hello, how are you?”, you may say nothing, or just “hello” or “hello, I haven’t seen you for a while, how are you doing?”.

The game could go on for ever.  But games never do.  In an ideal world, both people will have had enough at the same point and the game will end.  At other times, one person wants the game to end earlier than the other person, usually leaving the other person feeling rejected.  Face to face, this is quite easy to avoid – unless you intend to cause hurt, or are mind blind – but it is much more difficult on the internet.  How do you know whether the person who has commented wants a two-stroke exchange, or a long conversation? 

In real life, the length of the game is usually determined by the context and by our personalities.  A two-stroke exchange is normal if you both pass each other in the street on your way to a meeting.  Men’s exchanges with each other often have fewer strokes than equivalent exchanges between women.  A longer exchange would be normal if you were sitting next to each other at dinner. 

But the internet has no context, and people often trade on anonymity.  And people live in different time zones.  What is a relaxed time of day for me, might be your busiest hour?  The potential for doing the wrong thing and causing disappointment is enormous, and enough to make you consider throwing the whole thing in.

So, if I respond to your comment with another comment which includes a question, you may not wish to respond.  If you don’t respond, I look a bit stupid for having asked the question in the first place, and I feel sad that you haven’t answered the question.  Being surprisingly reluctant to expose myself to the humiliation or the hurt, I am probably unlikely to ask further questions in my comment, unless I’m pretty sure that the person commenting will respond.  If I don’t ask a question, you now know one of the reasons why.  Which may be the same reason why you don’t comment on a blog.

Knowing that I will respond should ease anxiety.  Of course, you will still not know when I will respond, and the different time zones are very unhelpful.  My daily schedule is fairly unpredictable, which causes its own problems, but I am going to try to write posts on Sundays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays.  I may write posts in between, if I have time, and will try to answer comments as soon as I can.  I cannot stand passive aggressive behaviour, so rest assured that I will never delay responding to a comment on purpose.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was some symbol which a blogger could add to his or her blog which showed his or her commitment to responding to comments? 

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