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March 5, 2016

By: Steve DeGenaro

I used to talk on the phone to my Grandmother maybe 4-6 times a week.  She lived nearby and we saw each other several times a week as well, but she was a great person to call and talk to about school, food, --anything that was on my mind.  Those conversations started when I was about 11 or 12 and continued through high school.  I didn’t call as frequently when I was in college or newly married, but later in life, I picked the habit up again and we’d talk all the time.  She had an old rotary telephone that sat on a small table in her hall.  Next to it was a hall bench, and she’d sit on that hall bench for these conversations.  

 

I remember we usually talked about relatively inconsequential things ranging from what she was cooking for dinner on Sunday (when I was young) to how I should prepare the lasagna I was cooking (later in my life); from how my Grandfather was doing (when I was young) to how my sons were doing (later in my life).  Those calls stuck with me and I remember the connection if not the content of the calls.  

 

What she didn’t do was multi-task while we talked.  I never heard her banging pots and pans around while we chatted, and the line never buzzed with another call from somebody “more important than me”.  She never asked me to hold on while she ordered food at a drive through window or talked to a cashier in a store.  We were CONNECTED and nothing would stand in the way!

 

Flash forward many years to a very nice Business Class Lounge in Geneva Switzerland.  My wife and I were on our way back from Europe—Poland and the Czech Republic, thank you very much—and had a layover there.  We had settled in to have some espresso and biscotti and prepare for the long flight across the pond when I noticed something rather surreal—QUIET!

 

Nobody was braying into their cell phones about their personal business.  Quiet as a church, I did notice a few businessmen whispering into their mobile phones, but I couldn’t hear what they had to say.  Couples, like my wife and me, business associates traveling together, and any strangers that struck up any conversations did so in hushed whispers, considerate of each other.  What is this strange world, I thought to myself.  

 

A wise Uncle once opined, “The only people who needed cell phones are my doctor and my lawyer”.  That sage wisdom came at the beginning of the cell phone era.  As time goes by, I see what he meant, and could not agree with him more.  I posit that the cell phone and its widespread use has helped strip us of couth, manners, and consideration.  Everybody has one in their pocket and by God, they are not afraid to use them.  Too frequently, too loudly, and for calls that are simply too insignificant!

 

I’ve been privy to other people’s calls during business meetings, calls during church services, calls during wedding ceremonies, calls during political speeches, calls during children’s soccer games.  I’ve even been privy to calls IN THE PRIVY, guys at urinals talking loudly into their handhelds about what time their flight arrives or when their next business meeting is or how to find the best rate at a hotel.  And who among us hasn’t started to answer the question of a stranger in public only to realize he or she is talking into one of those microphone-and-ear-bud contraptions?

 

While this advice is certainly worthwhile, and these conversations have merit, does the caller really have to share the details of their life with everyone in a fifty-foot radius?  Could the calls keep till you’re alone? Does a dentist from Des Moines or a sales rep from Buffalo really need a mic and ear bud, as if they are part of a secret service detail?  Is it that important to stay continuously connected?

And lest you think I’m only selfishly trying to spare myself the mundane, boring details of these people’s lives, my real question here is this:  don’t the people that are being talked at by these multi tasking, self important twits deserve better?  Don’t we all yearn and deserve the attention that we used to get when we communicated, talked, conversed on the phone? Don’t QUALITY conversations enhance our lives and help us build relationships with each other in a way that no text or tweet or interrupted cell phone call could ever do?  

 

My wife and I were out to dinner one night several weeks ago.  I work out of town a lot, and she works a lot in general, and we don’t get many nights like that. Something as simple as going out to dinner with her is, to me, priceless, precious, and to be treasured.  Of course, like so many other times, I couldn’t help but notice a couple sitting not far from us, young twenty-somethings.  Perhaps they were a newly married couple, perhaps they were out on a date, or perhaps they were a brother and a sister having dinner together.  Whatever their story, they spent much of the dinner pounding away furiously on their cell phones, texting somebody else.  Unlike the braying donkeys that talk loudly into their phones in public, this couple wasn’t bothering me at all.  But they did manage to make me feel a little sorry for them. Because they missed an opportunity to connect to someone “live”, a chance to “love the one your with” (as my friends Crosby, Stills, & Nash would say), a chance to visit with a friend, a relative, a colleague, a lover.  

 

I like to see stories about families having “technology free dinners” and I’m glad the movie theaters now offer a reminder before the movie starts to turn off your cell phones.  If the idea that you should be considerate to others is something you need to be reminded of, then I’m glad those reminders are there. But I hope our society realizes that this consideration and this politeness to others is a secondary motivation.  Stopping this incessant babble, this stream of consciousness braying, these piles of loudly spoken words with minimal meaning is good for YOU as well and will enhance the quality of YOUR conversations and the depth of YOUR relationships and friendships.

 

The Buddhists have a set of moral codes called “Ethical Aspirations”.  I’ll put a disclaimer on this paragraph:  What I know about Buddhism is based on the study of yoga & mindfulness meditation, and I’m sure it’s not very comprehensive.  Still, one of the ethical aspirations that I found fascinating was that moral beings should try not to use “false speech”. False speech includes lying, slander, gossip, bearing false witness, and cursing or swearing—all the things you’d expect.  But it also contains the aspiration to avoid idle chatter—that is, frivolous talk with no constructive purpose.  The first time I heard that I thought it was suggesting that people shouldn’t engage in what I’d call “chit chat”—friendly conversation about the weather, the kids, how our parents are doing, what’s new at work.  But I’ve come to realize what frivolous talk really is and why we should avoid it.  

 

Be mindful of others when you talk on your cell phone.   Save up those streams of consciousness and talk less frequently but more substantively with your fellow human beings.  Lower your voices in public and consider turning your ringers OFF instead of simply “down”. Pay attention to your conversations. Pay attention to the person talking to you, like they are the only person in the world. You can’t give others all your time, but give them your undivided attention for shorter periods of time.  Love one another, like one another, talk to one another, and listen to one another.  That will make others appreciate your consideration and it will make you feel better about yourself as well.  

 

I hope this advice is helpful to some of you out there.  Now, got to go—I have a call coming in on the other line!

THE CASE FOR QUALITY CONVERSATION