Let's Get Together... and Ignore Each Other

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (01-Sep-2009)

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Two guys walk into a Starbucks. They bump their way up to the barista and say... nothing. Then the first guy says to the second guy... nothing. The second guy turns to the first guy, and without looking at him says... nothing.

So what's the punch line? There isn't one because this isn't a joke. This is what I observed at my local Starbucks last week as I was working on a story and people watching. The two Dilbert-esque gentlemen I described walked in together, signaled their order to the barista, sat together at the same table, and never spoke a single word to each other or even bothered to acknowledge the presence of the other. More dialog has been exchanged between hostage and hostage-taker than these two. And why? Were they mutes who only expressed themselves in sign language? Were they devout monks who have sworn a vow of silence?

No. The first guy was talking on his cell phone; the second, texting on his Blackberry. From what I was able to gather from the rather loud talker on his cell phone, it wasn't an important business call that required his immediate attention. Despite his professional appearance, the conversation contained the typical mundane banality that teenagers exchange in their wolf packs. He just used bigger words.

The texter, quieter than his chatty colleague, thumbed away so quickly and efficiently that it seemed as though he were trying out for the World Tetris Championships. He stopped only to take the occasional sip of his coffee before returning in time to position his next Tetromino.

The only time I saw them address one another in the entire fifteen minutes they were there was when the talker tapped the texter on the shoulder and motioned to the door, signifying that it was time to leave and head back to the office. The texter simply nodded in agreement without looking up.

This, of course, raises the question: Why did they bother going to the café together if they were just going to ignore one another? They came in communicating with someone else and they left communicating with someone else. It seems to be a new norm for people to get together in person only to socialize with someone else at the other end of the digital idols they hold in their hands.

A local radio talk show host even had a segment describing this trend. At a dinner party the host attended, one of the guests spent the majority of the time texting away rather than conversing with others at the table. And when one of the other guests made an innocent comment about texting at the table, the texter got annoyed and chastised the person who made the comment. Social etiquette be damned, in the texter's mind it was his right to text and it was the person who made the comment who was the rude one.

Personally, I can't count the number of times I went to a restaurant and saw a couple sitting together where one or both were on the phone or texting others. Or worse, when I walk into a public washroom and hear someone in the stalls talking on his cellphone, or someone standing in front of a urinal with one hand texting and one hand "takin' care of business". Unless you're one of the J.B.'s—James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Jack Bauer—and are in the middle of some dire national emergency like attempting to disrupt a diabolic plan by some villainous thugs who are plotting to poison the world's supply of delicious chocolate M&M's, there's nothing so important that it can't wait a few seconds or minutes for you to "finish your business" and wash your hands.

As a writer and journalist I spend a lot of time outside observing people. Discounting the teenybopper crowd with their typical "you know, like, I can't, like, believe that, like, Ashley, like, totally, like, ignored me in home room!", for every one person I run across who's engaged in serious, time sensitive conversation on a cell phone, there are about twenty "so what are you up to now?" type conversations.

When people are out by themselves, are they so terrified of being left with their own thoughts as to require constant social stimulation? Or, when they're with others, are they so unaccustomed to dealing with people on a face-to-face level that they need to seek refuge behind their digital gadgets? Do they feel an urge to do it simply because they can?

Cell phones and smart phones are great at propagating that technology myth that's been carefully woven by the grand marketing wizards as a major selling point: With this new gadget you can finally, at long last, do that thing you never needed to do in the first place." Talk about that at your next get together.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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