Standing in line for the bathroom on a United flight to Newark, I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter of the flight attendants as they stood in their enclave at the back of the plane. They spoke of their children, their spouses; grimacing as they related tales of swollen ankles and unbearable layovers. As they jointly lamented the length and monotony of their days, one said, “I can’t wait until we get Wi-Fi on planes. We’ll just be sittin’ back here, watching movies…”
Wireless internet on planes will happen within that flight attendant’s lifetime, if not her career. Though internet will undoubtedly serve to relieve the boredom of your average flight attendant, it will bar the possibility of conversation, much less camaraderie. With Wi-Fi on board, flight attendants will not bother to talk to each other – they, like millions of employees on the ground, will stop looking into each others’ eyes and instead keep their necks permanently craned, fingers a-flurry, mouths shut tight.
Ever since the World Wide Web was invented, technology has been evolving at a frightening pace. Now, the almost ubiquitous presence of the internet, paired with the mass marketing of portable communications devices, allows one to remain permanently connected, always available. Technology today means never having to say goodbye.
Unfortunately, it also prevents us from saying hello. Even in St Andrews, where a walk down Market Street will bring you face-to-face with at least one acquaintance, many students conduct much of their communication through social media, be it Snapchat, Facebook chat, Whatsapp or Instagram. Instead of consolidating friendships through earnest conversation, students choose to create and maintain ersatz relationships with other people, relationships without vulnerability or risk.
Online chatting is far easier than the real-life version. The content is carefully managed and doled out in controlled portions. There is no need to fear uncomfortable pauses, as the conversation proceeds in fits and jolts, each person responding when it is most convenient. An answer is expected, but not required; one’s attention is free to stray from one chat-box to another, choosing to address only what is most interesting at that moment. There is little effort in it: no need for pleasantries, or patience, or even an identified conversational partner – mass texts allow for you to share whatever you like with everyone, and thereby no one.
No such liberties can be taken in real-time. Awkward silences, uninteresting topics, unplanned out bursts: these, and many more, are recurring inconveniences that must immediately be dealt with. Talking is hard – when you sit across from someone, you make yourself vulnerable to the situation at hand. You expose a part of yourself that is shielded by the screen – a part that it’s easier to keep protected. I say, embrace the awkward.
Don’t stop using these social media platforms altogether, but be wary of letting them supplant real life interaction, especially in university. Instead of lying in bed and letting your fingers speak, stand up, get dressed, and go out to see people. Be open to spontaneous conversation in line at Starbucks, or Tesco. It’s tempting to simply Facebook stalk when you want to see what someone has been doing – resist the urge to scan the screen, and instead call them and just ask. Plan a coffee date, or lunch. Avoid the word “sometime” – set a time and a day for your get-togethers, otherwise they won’t happen.
Let’s stop chatting, and start talking again.