I was sitting and waiting to have a nasty cut bandaged by a nurse when a woman sitting next to me asked whether I had the time to talk to her. ‘Of course,’ I replied, wondering why she had even asked. ‘ I have a serious problem,’ she said, ‘but whenever I have the need to talk to someone, they do not make eye contact with me nor turn off their cell phones.’ I suggested that after the two of us are done with our respective medical procedures, we meet in a nearby café, which we did. She spoke about generalities, and then, she came out with the fact that her husband had recently been diagnosed with a mental illness and she needed to talk to somebody. ‘Why me?” I asked. ‘Well, you don’t seem to be busy with your cell phone,” was her surprising reply. I promptly slipped my hand surreptitiously into my bag, turned off my smartphone and then concentrated on what she was saying. I really listened. An hour later, I slipped one of my cards into her hand, smiled at her, and told her that she could call me at any time if she felt the need to do so. ‘Thank you,’ she said, tears blurring her vision. ‘I needed to talk about my husband and not only did you listen to me, you helped me a lot.’
This incident reminded me of the first time I’d seen a cellphone being used by someone in public on a street in Tel Aviv. It looked like a black, plastic device about the size of a candy bar pressed to his ear. ‘What are they?’ I asked my friend. ‘Phones, mobile phones.’ ‘Like cordless?’ ‘No, you can’t take a cordless far from its base.’ ‘Why would a person need a phone while walking around outside?’ I asked but he failed to reply.
In 2014, this sounds odd but in the mid 90’s I’d thought of a phone categorically as a domestic object only, so what I saw there seemed equivalent to taking my TV out for a stroll. We have morphed from a society of citizens into an army of users and as a result, our public space has eroded in unanticipated ways.
I decided to conduct an experiment and take note of how many people actually made eye contact with me while talking. Would any of them turn their smartphones to silent mode while in my company? Well, the social worker did not look up when I entered her office, the bank teller was texting , the checkout cashier at the supermarket was busy flipping apps up and down on her phone so that I found myself waiting in vain to pay and leave. She did not reply when I said good morning either. The only eye contact I made that week was with my General Practitioner who had no sign of a smartphone on his desk and who actually smiled at me.
The following day I stood at a bus stop and approached a young woman cradling a poodle in her arms. ’Cute puppy,’ I ventured. She moved away from me. ‘I like dogs,’ I told her. ‘Cool,” she muttered and walked off, probably thinking, why did I have to get stuck next to this middle-aged dork who actually wants to talk at a bus stop? I moved to speak to a man sitting on his suitcase but before I could utter a word, he glanced at his cellphone and moved away. By now, others at the bus stop had noticed what was happening and a silent ripple of panic seemed to pass through them. They regarded me with nervous, sidelong glances because in their eyes, wasn’t I the potentially mentally ill person who actually wanted to talk to people? I was tempted to say; I am not ill. All I want is some human contact but this might have made me seem even more frightening. I was indignant, frustrated but more than anything, in the midst of these twelve people, my paramount feeling was one of loneliness.
Was this how the lady at the nurse’s clinic had felt? She’d had a serious need to talk, but nobody was prepared to listen.
Smartphones changed everything. A few years ago initiating conversation in a public place was considered friendly. The cultural consensus was that it was rude to talk on a phone in public. Today, people talk on them less but stare at them, are mesmerized by them and thumb out messages, flicking their fingers to and fro. Physically, they might feel as if they are in company but emotionally, smartphones have created a techno-bubble of private space. I think that there might be a way of breaking through this bubble without freaking people out. If I tell the person next to me that I am considering purchasing a smartphone, and ask an innocuous question, they might land up telling me something about the way their phone works, but that’s all.