It is no longer enough to win a prize in a competition and say, “Oh jolly good. Thanks awfully”; we must scream and yell and clutch our faces in dumbfounded disbelief. It no longer carries any weight when we tut and shake our heads when queue-barged at the supermarket; we must shout and stamp. Children are no longer satisfied with a pat on the head; they must be congratulated at every turn, praised effusively for merely trying, let alone winning, and generally made to feel like gods and goddesses. We live in an age of burgeoning over-reaction and it’s getting exhausting.
Where do we go for our reactions to real achievement, real despair, real anger? Strangely, back round the circle to the smallest reaction of all: silence. Far more affecting than the wailing and weeping at Princess Diana’s death was the silence with which the crowds greeted her funeral cortège. When giving a child a present, far more touching than an overblown yell of “Awesome!” is seeing the look of speechless wonder that crosses their face. You know you have fed a roomful of people well when they’re too busy eating to remember fulsome compliments and empty flattery.
Of course, over-reaction is often a mask for unworthy real feelings – the exaggerated mugging smiles of the passed- over Oscar nominee, the “Wow! Isn’t it gorgeous!” when your child hands you a misshapen excuse for a clay pot – and it is surely kinder to feign an exaggeratedly polite reaction than show the real negative one? The trouble is that the currency of reaction has been terminally devalued: the more showy the fake reaction is, the more obviously counterfeit it is. React in a measured way. Avoid the empty posturing and bring back the subtler measures. Over-reaction is over.