a legitimately important communication from my employer that demanded
a timely response. She chattered on
(my daughter, that is, not my boss)
about peanut butter and birds and how
to sing “This Land Is Your Land” while
I tapped out my reply.
Hitting “Send,” I felt a flush of satisfaction—that’s one less e-mail to deal
with tomorrow morning—and plowed
back into my in box, looking for more
chores to dispatch. Then I blinked up
to see all the other silently staring parents, slumped on benches or standing
around, buried in the screens of their
own smartphones. The kids ignored
them; they ignored the kids; the birds
sang, and the sun shone. And that flush
faded to something closer to a chill.
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?
I’m not the only one who has been
struck by the eerie quiet that surrounds
us nowadays. “We have all these invisi-
ble walls built by iPods and cell phones,”
says Daniel Menaker, who crusades for
traditional, face-to-face connection in
his new book, A Good Talk: The Story
and Skill of Conversation. “Not to be
apocalyptic, but I’m very worried.
There’s a social obligation to be avail-
able in a public space.”
Though hand-held devices now
encroach on some treasured preserves
of good talk—restaurant meals, an
afternoon at the ballpark, the privacy
of your car—Menaker’s chief villain
isn’t technology per se but our work-
obsessed lives. A job culture that
demands always-on connectivity is
flooding our days and nights with the
clipped conventions and I-want-it-
yesterday expectations of the workplace.
The result: a nation of hyperconnected
hermits, thumbs furiously working
our BlackBerrys, each of us a master of
an ever-smaller personal universe.
To read an
Daniel Menaker on the
joy of conversation,