The decline and fall of conversation:The smartphone’s effect on our ability to meet, greet, and speak

People are quickly losing the ability to talk to one another. A residual  capacity still exists, but it is evaporating so fast that I may witness its extinction in my lifetime. The roots of this problem can be traced back as far as the invention of the telegraph more than 180 years ago but the advent of the smartphone has now vastly accelerated the decline of face to face speaking skills. Oratory, rhetoric, public speaking, and clarity of speech have likewise suffered greatly.

When I was growing up in the time before cellphones, I recall the numerous opportunities I had to meet and converse with strangers. Luckily, my parents never discouraged me from interacting with strangers unlike today’s parents who are told by well-meaning but misguided ‘authorities’ that they should inform their kids to ‘never talk to strangers.’

Indeed, the chances to meet new people, chat, make small talk, and possibly make a new friend or acquaintance  were endless. However, all of those situations where formerly we were encouraged or at least allowed to chat up a stranger are now gone, thanks to the smartphone.

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If you found yourself in an elevator with someone and you were both riding up to a high floor, you may not have had a lot of time, but perhaps it was just enough to offer a “It’s going to be a hot day, that’s for sure,” to the person standing next to you. And that may have led to a reply of “Oh, you got that right. And my air conditioner broke last night and I was miserable because my room was so hot.”  And then you could commiserate with this person. The next time you ran into him you might continue the conversation by asking about the air conditioner. See? It was so simple. Now, I notice that everyone, once they have boarded the elevator, immediately takes out their phone to text to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of standing next to a stranger for a few seconds.

The introduction of televisions into airplanes guaranteed that people would no longer speak to one another on long plane rides though they were a few hold-outs who stubbornly insisted on having conversations with the person sitting next to them. Nowadays, with everyone carrying a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, even those hold-outs have disappeared. Most people don’t even wait for take-off to get plugged into their cyber-world. They cast nary a glance at the person who they will be sitting mere inches from for the next 10 hours. You, the person sitting next to this new species of cyborg, are irrelevant; actually, you don’t even exist.

Buses, too, have now installed televisions and wi-fi, and predictably people now no longer talk there either. I recall riding the Greyhound Bus on long trips up and down the West Coast and making some wonderful friends in the pre-television and pre wi-fi days.

Coffeeshops, bars, and restaurants used to be places where one could meet a stranger and start up a conversation, especially if one of you was reading a book. A glance at the front cover of a book was always an easy introduction into a chat. “That book looks interesting. I’ve heard of that author but have never read anything by her. Is it good?” Your interest in the book, and literature in general, was usually sufficient to show that you were not a creep and could hold a reasonably decent intellectual conversation. These days, nobody brings books into cafes or restaurants. It’s all about the smartphone now and no one is going  to ask you what you are looking at on your phone. Furthermore, when people read books, although they were concentrating, they were still present in the here-and-now world. Not so with the smartphone. The iphone and its ilk draw people deep into a cyberworld, an alternate reality. People lose all awareness of the real world. They don’t know who is sitting in front of, next to, or behind them, and don’t care.

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Because of the addictive nature of the smartphone, people, especially the young, have an extremely difficult time putting it down for even a few minutes. Hence, even if you are able to punch through their psychic wall and begin a conversation, it will inevitably peter out in a short time. The phone being held tightly in the palm of the hand begs to be used. It is insistent. If the conversation lulls for any reason, the one holding the smartphone will start texting or browsing the web and the talk is done. Finished.

Look at people today waiting at a bus stop for the bus to arrive. Look at the poor, lonely souls waiting in the queue at the supermarket or at the bank. Are they talking? No. They are checking their facebook or instagram. Look at the friends and families sitting in cars at traffic lights. Talking to each other? No- all looking at their phones. I used to work at an office where everyone would take their lunch tray back to their desk to  eat while watching youtube. Nobody was interested in sitting at a table and eating with friends and engaging in that age-old ritual called ‘conversation.’

 

 

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