Conversations with strangers through iPods?

 “Goodbye” said a little voice on the tram the other day as I pulled my headphones out of my jacket pocket.

I had been staring out of the window ahead, seated on one of those singular chairs not joined to any others. The ones where the seat points in a different direction, where you feel comfortably separate, like you’re on a little island all of your own. But at the voice of a stranger I looked around me in confusion at the other passengers.

On the seat adjacent to mine a short man with bright blue eyes, perhaps in his mid-sixties, was staring at me. A peculiar little grin hovered at the corner of his mouth. As if daring me to contradict what he’d said.

“Sorry?” I mumbled in confusion. I had not really heard what he’d said, and was not accustomed to being spoken to on trams: They are a place for quiet and discomfort, where everyone avoids eye contact and pretends the carriage is empty. Right?

ipod-shuffle-small-talk
???

“I said ‘goodbye’”. The man grinned: “When young people turn those things on they disappear” he declared, pointing at my iPod.

I nodded and mumbled something like ‘oh, right’, laughing a little at how forthright this stranger was. I wasn’t really sure how to disagree with him. I wasn’t even sure that I did disagree with him.

“Everyone is stuck on those things” he continued, shaking his head. “And they are ruining the way people communicate”. He spoke in a mildly frustrated manner, very polite, but annoyed. The hint of a grin still hovered at the side of his mouth.

From there the conversation moved forward to how much time people spend behind screens, how this changes communication, how he sees this in young people he talks to in his experience as a businessman.

“It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you can’t communicate you’ll never make it to the top. I see so many young people who will never be successful because they have not learnt how to communicate” he lamented, with his bright blue eyes sure that this was it.

He told me then of a recent trip to Mexico, where he travels every year to check that his factory is running smoothly. I told him I had been interested in Mexico, as something to study after my undergraduate degree. I’d always considered Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – as a potential honours topic. It was the differences in how Mexicans publically handle death compared to Australians (maybe Westerners in general) that I thought would make a good topic. The differences in how the two cultures deal with death can tell you a lot about how each culture deals with other things – communication, for example. When he spoke of his factory though, I couldn’t help but wonder what his idea of success was. But I understood the point he was making.

As communication technologies like iPods and the internet become increasingly central to modern life the danger that they are transforming human nature in ways that distance us from each other increases. In one way or another technology is supposed to be the undoing of us all. Tempting us to be keyboard warriors who in real life no longer know how to properly look a stranger in the eye.

In a study conducted by Bianca Lee and  Lexine Stapinski the two researchers examine the hazards of excessive internet use, especially in those with social anxiety. The vulnerability of those with social anxiety in developing what the researchers call problematic internet use is connected to the perception of online communication as a safer means of interacting with others (Lee and Stapinski 2011, p.197).

The researchers do point out however, that personality traits also play a part in how susceptible one is to problematic internet use. Loneliness, depression, substance addictions, shyness, and aggression are cited as psychological vulnerabilities associated with problematic internet use (Lee & Stapinski 2011, p. 197). Reading their article however, I found much in it that I thought relevant to many people, and the point that this man on the tram was trying to make.

The internet is becoming a popular alternative for face-to-face interactions, in part because it is convenient, and in part because it is easier to avoid the unpleasant situations that occur every now and then in even the most established friendships. You can disappear online in a way that you can’t just up-and-run in real life. In my own experience an example would be when friends text before calling, asking if it’s ok to call. Texting presents a convenient but also more comfortable – less awkward – option, which seems to be replacing speaking voice-to-voice over the phone, where all manner of awkward silences can spring up.

In their study Lee and Stapinski conclude with preliminary evidence that online communication can hamper the development of effective face to face communication by providing us with a more comfortable mode of communication (2011, p. 198). The internet can provide us with a safer environment in which to communicate, one where we have more anonymity and therefore more control over the image of ourselves that we promote. We can circumnavigate the aspects of face to face communication that are more difficult to conceal – paralinguistics like body language – and limit the possibility for these modes of communication to contradict the image of ourselves as we would like to be seen. But alongside this comes the possibility of exaggerating the danger, discomfort, and risk of interacting with strangers in real-life social situations – such as sitting on a tram and wondering why on earth a stranger would just start talking to you.

Maybe we just need to practice, as this man was doing on the tram, and move outside our comfort zones.

“So every now and then I talk to people on the tram, on the bus, and see what they have to say” he continued after our conversation about Mexico. “I enjoy talking to people.”

“Do you usually get a good response?” I asked him, genuinely interested. He nodded his head from left to right, considering. “Sometimes. Sometimes people don’t know what to say. Many times I have good conversations and I can tell who’ll be ok….You’ll be ok” he told me, and I couldn’t help but laugh, not imagining myself a factory owner.

“Well this is my stop” he said eventually, looking ahead out of the driver’s window. It was nice to talk to you Pamela” he said, in his formal, polite manner. “Here is my business card, send me an email sometime.”

I smiled, nodded and wished him a good day, genuinely glad to have spoken to him. I stared into space again for a while with his business card in my hand, and eventually turned my iPod back on, switching to a podcast. I had tried to convince him that there were different ways to use technology, and that screens weren’t inherently bad.

And that, I suppose brings me to the point of this post – because all through our conversation I couldn’t help but think how it wouldn’t have started without the iPod. That something that is often a barrier to communication had in fact initiated a conversation I don’t think I’ll forget.

So yes, there are barriers to communication created by the internet, by smartphones, by having everyone there but really not there at the same time. But if we can take this man’s lead there are also opportunities for communication that wouldn’t have seemed obvious at first, in little niches on silent trams and awkward elevator silences. If we can find a way to practice, maybe we’ll be ok.

References:

  • Lee, B. W. and Stapinski, L. A. 2011, ‘Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use’, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26, no. 1, pp. 197-205.
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