As I was leaving for work the other morning, I approached the elevator and saw three people standing there with faces buried in their phones. I’ve witnessed this scenario on many occasions, but for some reason, it affected me differently this particular day. Perhaps I was more alert because it was Friday and I was looking forward to the weekend. I’m not sure, but I had a lighthearted bounce in my step, so I offered up a breezy, confident “Good morning!”
Continuing to scroll through emails, one person had the wherewithal to let a fleeting glance escape and mutter back, “Morning.” Meanwhile, the other two grunted something inaudible as if they were unfamiliar with the custom and irritated that I was cheerily interrupting their index finger phone-swiping.
As we rode on the elevator in cricket-like silence, I entertained the question: how can we manifest more human interaction in this digital age instead of keeping our necks down submerged in our phones? I fear that our future will lead to a generation of people who will only know how to communicate via text or email. They might possibly even lose the ability to keep their heads up altogether.
I’m sure we’ve all seen people out at dinner who don’t even acknowledge one another. It’s as if they want to convey that their phones are more intriguing and interesting than their dinner companions. I often wonder, why did they even bother to get together in the first place? Is the need to know what’s trending so important that we’re afraid to look up and pay attention to real life?
I also wonder whether we’re in danger of learning how to think for ourselves if information isn’t fed to us on the internet. I’m not saying the information isn’t necessary or useful (I admit that I do look at my traffic app before heading out the door each morning) but I feel like we’ve reached an extreme and are at risk of not knowing how to function without our digital devices. Do people even read hardcover books anymore?
And what’s happened to our sense of community? In my neighborhood growing up, everyone knew and looked out for one another. Can we get back to being neighborly, or are we just too busy with our own life challenges and internet searches to let others infringe on our time?
I know it might sound old-fashioned of me, but I’d rather live in a world that resembles “Mayberry” than one where people don’t know how to have a conversation or are so preoccupied with digital euphoria that they’re susceptible to “tech neck.” Surely there’s a happy medium in there somewhere.
I have found in my most unexpected human interactions that I have learned something new or had my perspective broadened. We can learn from everyone, but first, we have to reach out and be willing to listen to one another. I know we’re often caught off guard when we ask someone, “How are you?” and they tell us the truth instead of delivering the perfunctory, “I’m fine.” Rather than being surprised, perhaps we can recognize that as our opportunity to get to know someone better or lend an ear.
On my drive to work that same morning as the elevator interaction, my right turn signal was singing its usual syncopated rhythm when I saw a woman standing on the opposite street corner with her head down, so engrossed in her phone that she stepped off the curb and sauntered right into traffic. It was clear that she assumed there were no cars in her path and that, if there were, they would definitely stop to avoid hitting her. I almost honked at her and yelled out my window for her to look up and pay attention, but honestly speaking, I’m not that person.
A few days later, my colleague experienced a similar incident. She had a close encounter with a woman who was pushing a baby stroller into the street, not paying attention to traffic or her baby, but definitely captivated by texting and scrolling.
Yes, pedestrians have the right away, but let’s not pretend that everyone knows or abides by this law. So ask yourself, is that text, email or finger swipe worth your life? I hope we can all agree that the answer is no.
Instead, let’s look up, smile, say hello, and try to have a conversation with each other that’s more than monosyllabic. It won’t hurt you and—guess what?—you might even learn something.
This essay was featured in the July 7th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.