Monday, March 16, 2015
Steven Petrow takes on Death and Dying in the Digital Age
When Steven Petrow aka “Mister Manners” arrived at VCCA for his residency in February, panic was nipping at his heels. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d be working on while he was here. But old hand that he is (he’s had eight residencies) Steven knew this self-doubt would pass. “Talking to the other Fellows is always calming,” he says. “It’s one of the things I love about being here—surrounded by people of the same temperament in the same creative world—it’s a real community and we really understand each other. It’s incredibly powerful.”
Steven writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Digital Life" for USA Today and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health. Previously, he penned The New York Times' "Civil Behavior" column and "Digital Dilemmas" for Parade magazine. Among his books are: Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life; The New Gay Wedding: A Practical Primer for Brides and Grooms, Their Families and Guests; When Someone You Know Has AIDS: A Practical Guide; and the upcoming Mind Your Digital Manners: Navigating Life in an Age Without Rules. He is currently is working on an essay about death and dying in the digital age, how new technologies and new social media platforms our changing our attitudes towards death.
After a long period in which hospitals and the medicalization of death removed it from the daily sphere, it’s become much more visible in the culture again. Steven argues that we can thank social media for this. Though it’s blamed for depersonalizing some things, social media is taking us back to a much more natural relationship with death. “People are sharing it. They’re posting and tweeting from their deathbeds, so even though they may be in a hospital or hospice, it’s very public. Leonard Nimoy had been tweeting about his death for the last four months. A lot of people are aghast; they think it’s too TMI, but I think it’s healthy. We’re so dispersed these days and online communities are forming around these people providing real emotional support.”
When writing his column, Steven puts things through a prism of respect, kindness and civility. “It’s not always my first, personal response. Like anyone else, I can get tweaked by a question or situation, so my first drafts don’t always have as much kindness as I would like. But they’re fun to write,” he says with a twinkle. “When it’s time for a second version, I come back at my response with that prism and it takes me to the kind of advice that I think is helpful.”
Steven gets a lot of reader feedback, which he loves. Recently, he did a column in USA Today on texting vs. voicemail. His position was unless you’re dealing with someone of the ‘older generation” most people seem to prefer texting these days. “Get with the times,” he wrote to the letter writer. Voicemail takes time: you have to go through the prompts and people don’t listen to them, so that’s what he based his decision on. He’s never gotten as much of a response from readers (on both sides of the argument). Some said he didn’t respect his elders, some, that he didn’t understand the past. He wrote one of them back asking, “Well, how old do you think I am?” The answer was 24. Steven is actually 57.
And his bottom line on communication? “People should respond in the manner in which people want to receive information. It’s about respect.”
“I really appreciate it when people write that they like my sense of humor and my compassion. A lot of the LGBT questions I deal with are really hard because they’re about non-acceptance in families—I try to embrace everyone and take them along in some way even if I’m not agreeing with them.”
Steven points out that the most important manners advisors have emerged around times of great social change. Emily Post debuted in the early 1920s during the post World War I economic and class upheaval, Amy Vanderbilt appeared soon after World War II, with Judith Martin aka “Miss Manners” following in the 1960s. And now Steven, with his insight into technology and LGBT issues, is here to help guide us graciously through the new normal.
There’s plenty of common sense and same old same old involved. He mentions that Emily Post cautioned against the type of letter a woman should never write a man—a “Dear John” missive. Post wrote that it could end up in the wrong hands, on the front page of The New York Times, and ruin the author’s life. Sounds familiar? Says Steven: “Substitute Twitter for The New York Times and Post’s advice is as sound as it was in her day.”
At VCCA, Steven appreciates having: “the time to sit and think, and read and to sketch out an outline. My husband asks me, why do you have to go away—we live alone. I tell him, that just being in this community is a different way to have more time because you’re supported in so many ways. As a writer, I also really like the fact that there are visual artists and composers here. Our creative processes are of the same family, even though we’re different siblings within that family. It’s very helpful to have those perspectives.”