Mourning the Lost Art of Conversation

Let me ask those of you over 50 a question: what do you miss most about life before the internet and mobile phones? Here’s my answer: genuine conversation. I miss the days when you met up with a friend in a coffee shop or restaurant and could talk for hours without being interrupted by damn text message, email, or some form or notification. I hate the fact that you can’t get through a meal anymore without someone pulling out their phone for one reason or the other, if not to check social media or text messages, then to look something up on Google or ask Siri / Alexa what song is playing.

The internet and mobile phones, though incredibly convenient, have corrupted the art of conversation permanently. First of all the generations that have all grown up with mobile phones have really short attention spans in comparison to those of us who didn’t. I refer to it as the social media attention span, meaning that whatever you tell them has to be absorbable in the same amount of time it takes to scroll through social media feeds. If it will take longer than five seconds you’ve lost them already. Any interaction longer than 15 minutes is torture for them already unless it is a video game.

Intra-office messengers are the death of interpersonal skills. First of all nothing is in complete sentences, half the sentence is full of emojis and the rest is with acronyms that you have to look up. You get dirty looks if you just pop over to the next room and ask a question or bounce off a few ideas. The response from the younger colleagues is that of disdain and resentment because they have to take off their earphones, stop their music, and actually look away from the screen and pay attention to you. God forbid you might want something more than two questions that take 10 seconds to answer, and the response will pretty dismal and frustrating anyway – I’ll send it over by Slack or whatever other internal messenger is being used. I was so happy when the office I worked for back in 2009 still had an interoffice messenger who ran around bringing actual folders to be signed that had to be confirmed with a phone call. Ten years later everything went digital and things were sent as PDFs and you sign with a stylus.

Is it possible to still talk about recipes, fashion and gardening without looking it up in Pinterest, YouTube or Facebook? I miss the days when you had to drive over to the mechanic or tailor for a question or repair, and not book an appointment first via an appointment app or messenger first. Even worse now that everything happens via video conferencing. I made the horrible mistake once of asking someone to teach me something about exposures and lighting. The response was “No, look it up in YouTube and figure it out yourself”. Rude, yes, but that applies to carpentry, cooking, household repairs and gardening these days.

Does anyone still remember standing next to an older person and looking over their shoulder and being regaled with tales from the past as well as being taught at the same time? I do, and my heart years for it. What about the times when you could go to a ball game or park just to enjoy and cheer, not be part of someone’s social media story that will be uploaded to Instagram or Facebook? Try announcing that an event being held will not allow mobile phones and you will have no audience. I have yet to attend a movie, concert or play these days where somebody’s stupid mobile phone doesn’t go off in the middle of the performance. I have memories of strolling through the malls with friends laughing and chatting, and not one of us had a phone or pager, we just focused on each other. The internet and mobile phones have killed attention spans and made people inconsiderate and disrespectful. Nothing makes me go ballistic faster than having to wait for someone to finish typing an email or text at the table in front of me when it should be our exclusive time – be it a meeting, a meal or rendezvous.

How many marriages would fall apart these days if the couple didn’t have mobile phones? Let’s be honest, a large percentage of relationships only hold together these days because substantial communication takes place digitally. People would rather send a text than pick up the bloody phone and call. One phone call would save a lot of time and agony of writing texts and emails back and forth. In comparison, think back on all the generations before us who didn’t even have phones and had the most uncomplicated, loyal, and transparent relationships – whether it be siblings, friends, classmates or couples. For anyone younger than 50 parenting without a mobile phone is an impossible feat, and that is a sad state of affairs.

Where are those evenings of book clubs, philosophical or political discussions or soirees without TVs, radios and phones? Going on a movie date in the day involved looking up the movie timings in the newspaper and agreeing to meet at a certain place beforehand, writing it down (remember that? You use paper and pen) in a diary or calendar. Bloody hell it actually worked! Now it’s a text that basically goes Netflix? BYOF. K CU.

Having unloaded this rant on you, I will admit that chatting on messengers with friends and loved ones has kept me sane over the years. It’s not that I don’t appreciate or cherish it, and often times there is no other recourse due to geographic distances. We send photographs, GIFs and meme back and forth, forward articles or listicles, but it is entertainment and not conversation. In our youth (and I refer to those of my generation and older) we would have met up somewhere and brought along our stacks of magazines, books, newspaper clippings, actual photographs or perhaps even albums. It would have been hours on end of delightful conversation or loud banter. Who remembers coupon clubs or stamp collectors meetings? You brought scissors, boxes and albums, not smart phones with QR readers! Before ebay there were rummage sales, garage sales, book swaps, recipe swaps and so on – where it was all about the people and their stories, not just the item.

I truly appreciate video calls these days because it forces everyone back into real conversation mode. The joy of seeing some laugh or frown and all those funny dangling sentences and interrupted ideas when everyone is trying to get a word in is absolutely delightful. I had two video calls today and they were incredibly uplifting to the soul and I thought to myself, Now THAT was good old fashioned conversation!

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