“Do you remember,” my husband said in the middle of yesterday’s Eagles game, apropos of nothing, “how when you used to call a friend’s house, sometimes you’d get the friend’s mom or dad, and you’d have a little conversation with them? Just a little back-and-forth, you know?”
I did remember, though I hadn’t thought about it in years. Back when I was in high school, it happened all the time.
“Hi, Mrs. Nunemaker, this is Sandy,” I’d say. And Mrs. Nunemaker would say, “Oh, Sandy!”
She’d always sound so glad to hear from me, so excited. “How are you?” she’d ask. “Oh, I’m fine,” I’d say, and then extend it a little further: “The field hockey team lost today,” or, “I just got back from the mall; we were Christmas shopping,” or something like that.
It didn’t really matter what either of us said. It was practice: She, the grown-up, was giving me, the teenager, a chance to practice interacting with a grown-up, behaving the way grown-ups do when they make small talk — at a cocktail party, say, or in an elevator at work. This would go on for a minute or so, and then she’d say, “Let me go get Barb,” and I’d say thanks, good night, and Barb would come on the line, and we’d get down to dishing about who was going out with whom and who was dumping whom and what the hell was going on with Margaret Thomassen’s dress today anyway?
Our kids, Doug went on to point out to me, have never had that experience. When they were in high school, they had phones of their own. No intermediary was necessary; they had instant access to all their friends.
This got me thinking. When friends used to come over to visit back in high school, they came to the door. Whether it was a girlfriend or your boyfriend, that person got out of the car, walked up to your door, and knocked. Chances are my mom or dad came to the door. That was one more opportunity to exchange small talk with a gatekeeper, an adult who would clue you in to how to behave in those can-be-awkward moments when two worlds collide. The weather was a safe topic; so was whatever had happened in school that day. You might chat about an impending holiday, or the movie you were going to see. The content wasn’t the point. The lesson in manners was.
These days, my kids’ friends text when they get close to our house; my kids text back, and they’re out the front door and in the car before I even know they’re gone.
We order our hoagies from touchscreens; we get our cash at ATMs. Customer service — what passes for customer service — is a series of “If yes, press pound” menus. We order everything from postage stamps to bras to sailboats online. Every one of those faceless, soulless interactions is a missed opportunity for actual human contact. And we wonder why our children bully one another online, why simple traffic mishaps lead to road rage, why the nation is polarized politically.
Philly Mag chairman Herb Lipson is old-school. When he gets in an elevator, he wants to make conversation. He longs to chat about the weather, politics, fashion, whatever. But no one wants to talk to him. He’ll take a stab at it; his fellow riders rarely look up from the cell phones they’re obsessively checking. Herb views this as an affront — the height of bad manners, to dismiss the living, breathing person standing two feet from you to pay attention to somebody else who’s who knows where.
I don’t agree with Herb on much, but I’m with him on this. I’ve written here before about my frustration with young people who won’t use their phones to actually talk — who prefer texting, and won’t answer the phone even when you know they’re there. Herb told me the other day that he’d suggested a young person call someone he knew who might be of help in the young person's career. The young person emailed the contact instead. When Herb asked why the young person hadn’t bothered to actually, you know, call, the young person said: “I just wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Comfort comes from practice. And so much of what technology has brought us — cyberschooling, virtual bankers and doctors, Facebook, online dating — has the downside of limiting human contact, and robbing us of chances to learn appropriate ways to interact. That leaves us self-conscious and tongue-tied when we’re forced to rub shoulders with strangers. It’s a vicious circle.
And I don’t see it getting any better. I only see it getting worse, as we become increasingly solitary and isolated — as live contact comes to seem ever more troublesome than the electronic kind. Face-to-face communication, after all, is so much riskier than typing. Something could go awry. You might not be in control. You might look vulnerable, or stupid. And you might not have an app for that.