Monday, September 19, 2011

Real-time conversation

At a get-together on Saturday evening, within a small circle of other parents of seventh graders, I confessed my concern about Tim’s social life: too much of it happens by text message. I’m worried that he won’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation.

For several months now, he’s been an avid text-messager, but it never bothered me much. When I was his age, boys and girls wrote notes to each other or communicated via friends; this didn’t seem very different to me, though I admit I’ve become a little envious of the unfair advantage girls in 2011 have over seventh grade girls thirty years ago, when I was that age: they can carry on conversations with boys without actually having to stand there and talk. “That would be so easy!” I sometimes lament. “Even I could have done that!” Indeed, I would have been like my own Cyrano de Bergerac, poised and eloquent as can be if entire conversations could take place on screen back then rather than requiring eye contact.

But I became a little bit more perturbed in recent weeks as I began to suspect that Tim and his friends use text messaging not necessarily as a lead-in to eventually having a real conversation but as a substitute for one. I want to tell him that you have to learn at some point to stand there talking and feeling awkward. You have to push yourself through the stammering and uncertain articulation. You have to learn how to make comfortable conversation. I sometimes think I’m still learning that, and I need all the practice I can get.

So I had to acknowledge my own hypocrisy as I was driving to Bruegger’s Bagels after church yesterday wishing I could just text in my order. Bruegger’s on Sunday mornings tends to be busy and crowded, and the counter help often seems not to understand their own menu. I knew exactly what I wanted – a half-dozen pumpernickel bagels to go, plus one toasted sesame bagel with butter and one toasted onion bagel with olive cream cheese to take home to Tim and Holly for lunch – but I knew that a disproportionate amount of conversation would be required to get my order through once I reached the counter. “Why can’t I just submit it electronically?” I wished as I drove over. “Skip all that unnecessary conversation.”

And then, of course, the red flag went up. I couldn’t text my order to Bruegger’s for the same reason Tim shouldn’t text so much with his classmates: because standing patiently at the counter ordering is part of living in society. Perhaps the issues differed between the two situations – Tim’s required poise, whereas mine required patience – but the bottom line was the same: spoken communication is the archetype for all human interactions, and it’s something at which we all can stand to improve.

This was a particularly social weekend for us. On Friday, Holly and I had dinner with my father; on Saturday we went to a family get-together at my in-laws’ house during the afternoon and a friend’s bonfire in the evening; on Sunday I was a greeter at our church’s coffee hour and then attended a baby shower. All of the events involved a lot of conversation, and I enjoyed that. Working in solitude for most of my work week, I find it invigorating to be amidst lots of people over the weekend.

Still, it isn’t always easy. Going to so many gatherings this weekend reminded me that it’s fun to socialize, but Tim’s situation as well as my visit to Bruegger’s confirmed that good social skills in a variety of settings require practice. So I’ll try to gently urge Tim to do a little less texting and a little more talking, and I’ll also stop wishing I didn’t have to talk to people at food counters. Instead, I’ll try to welcome the opportunity it gives me to try to practice becoming ever more articulate.

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