IRELAND was freezing and covered in snow, but for author, journalist and healthcare trainer Rory Hafford, there was a silver lining. The appalling weather of two Christmases ago had turned out to be a welcome ice-breaker.
"People were more inclined to stop and chat to you, and always about the weather. In some small way, it brought people together, for a short time at least," he recalls.
But not everyone.
One miserable day in the middle of the big freeze, Hafford called into a local shop. But when he got to the counter, he did a major double-take.
"I had trouble believing my eyes. On the counter, in big, bold letters, was a sign. It read simply: 'Yes, it is cold.'
Hafford asked the guy behind the till if he had made the sign.
"Yes," the man replied, not looking at Hafford, instead busying himself counting out change.
Hafford asked why he had displayed it.
"He looked up at me, a frown creasing his brow; genuine confusion playing about his face.
"Why did I make it? Because it stops me having to talk to people. That's why."
For Hafford, it was the culmination of an alarming social disconnect which, he feels, has begun to take hold in Irish society.
"We now have small armies of folk shuffling, head down, hood up, plugged into their iPod; we have barrier-free, automated tolls; our government offices are guarded by tape-recorded messages; our phones have caller ID; our taxes are paid online; and our shopping can be ordered from the comfort of our beds!"
These procedures might be designed to streamline our lives, but at what cost?
"Ramp this up just a little bit more and, arguably, you could go from now until the end of your life without having to connect with another human being."
"Our status was solidified by where we sent our children to college and the size of our house and the horsepower of our car."
Empathy was one of the biggest casualties of this temporary, but ego-inflating, affluence, believes Hafford, a psychotherapist with qualifications in medical science, who runs a communications company to provide training programmes for healthcare workers and therapists. His new book, 'Broken Boy' (in shops from mid-May) also focuses on the subject.
He became so concerned about the general lack of empathy in society that a year ago he added a new course to his stable of 14 training programmes -- Empathy in Medicine.
Health & Living