I was in California recently, at a dockside restaurant overlooking a serene collection of small yachts, when I saw what is now a banality: a young couple, likely urban professionals in their early thirties, took the table across from mine, cell phones in hand, and sat down silently. They said nothing to each other. They did not even look at each other. Their blank eyes did not leave the screens of their electronic devices, their thumbs scrolling continuously as if caught in some neurological loop.
It was a good ten minutes before the husband briefly dissolved the silence, but only with some terse remark—something I did not quite catch, but which I’m sure was not at all pleasant. The wife, wearing a sad expression, rose and went to the bathroom, where she stayed for a long time. When she returned, they exchanged a few more low, brief utterances before returning to their silence.
There was a time when this would have surprised me, and that might not have been so long ago. I am only thirty years old, but in the United States of 2015 I feel much older. Most of my formative years occurred when the Internet was either non-existent or still a relatively marginal force in our everyday lives—or at least in my everyday life, as a lower-middle-class child whose parents worried about phone and cable bills and therefore urged as much outdoor play as possible. It worries me that I already begin sentences with phrases like “back in my time….” It also worries me that I have grown so used to sad vignettes like the one above.
Occasionally one gets a glimpse, mainly from older people, of how things could and should be. One afternoon, about a month ago, I sat in Starbucks, writing a draft of something on a yellow legal pad. I stopped to think, tapped my pen on the paper and let my eyes wander. They drifted up to catch the gaze of an attractive, fiftyish woman. She smiled one of those broad, honest, charming smiles and said, “what are you writing?”
Of course I was pleased to talk to this pretty stranger. I was aware, however, of the very slight and very brief jolt that ran through me when the woman initiated conversation: it was the feeling you get when exposed to something wholly unexpected. Most people I see nowadays do not even make eye contact with others, much less ask them substantive questions. Normally I am the one to engage the general public in small talk—to offer the smile, the sudden greeting or compliment, the glib joke on the supermarket checkout line. What I get from people is usually a hint of the same brief jolt that had overtaken me, followed by genuine cheeriness from the unexpected human contact. The new normal of the United States—virtual relationships, minimal conversation, degraded manners—has put each of us into a kind of solipsistic trance. When a stranger breaks it, we may be surprised, but pleasantly so. I urge you all to become practitioners of the surprise.