Terence Blacker: Sympathy? Or just showing off?

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The Independent Online

Here is a question for those who are up to date with the ever-changing etiquette of the new media. When you discover, through a group email, Facebook or Twitter, that someone you know is seriously ill, what is the correct way to respond? Once you would have contacted the person privately. Now, in this age of the semi-public forum, that seems inappropriately low-key.

Something has happened to sympathy recently. It has become more of a shared, team event than it once was. The English way of dealing with a crisis in the lives of others – murmured words, awkward offers of assistance – has given way to a more open show of caring. It is not enough to feel something; one must be seen to feel it.

Nowhere is the sentimental life of crowds more evident than at a football match. Mass sympathy is all the rage. Hardly had crowds dried their tears (with, just possibly, a faint sense of anticlimax) after it became clear that the Bolton player Fabrice Muamba was not going to die following his heart attack, when another show of concern was required.

Stiliyan Petrov, who plays for Aston Villa, has been diagnosed with acute leukaemia, it was announced last week. By Saturday, what is described as "the football family" was responding in characteristically showy manner. Players wore T-shirts with his name and "We are with you" written on them. Petrov wears No 19, and so, with a fine sense of theatre, the crowd stood to applaud him in the 19th minute of the game against Chelsea. Petrov, in the stand, applauded back.

It goes without saying that both footballers deserve everyone's good wishes for their recovery, but there is something bogus and melodramatic in these displays of mass emotion. Unless one really believes that, individually, we are becoming more caring to one another – and the evidence surely suggests that the opposite is the case – then these campaigns would seem to be more about the excitement of grief than a new sense of shared humanity.

It is tempting to conclude that the more a person shows shared public sympathy, the less likely he or she is to display it in the real world, close to home, where it matters.