As I took the bus to the city last week, I saw three groups of elderly women chatting happily to each other.  Even though I was standing in the crowded bus, I was amused by them – smiling, laughing, regaling and just doing what comes naturally to women and, more specifically, people over the age of 50.

It was such a refreshing sight, amidst a sea of heads either looking down at their smartphones or staring blankly ahead with pods in their ears, lost in their own private musical world, oblivious to those around them.

There is usually one person reading a book, the good old-fashioned way.

Conversation as an art is still relevant today.  Successful business dealings require it, social events demand it, and life is a lot more interesting when the skill is engaged.

The bus ladies didn’t grow up tethered to any devices, other than perhaps the washing machine or stove, and viewed interaction with others as something to look forward to.  A natter across the fence, an exchange of pleasantries with the grocer, a cuppa after church, an animated conversation about the cut of meat best suited to that night’s menu – these are all mostly things of the past with domination of supermarkets and the decline of religious worship.

I saw how their eyes sparkled, these grey-haired elders – their genuine enjoyment of the moment and how central to their being was the art of conversation.  What would they make of the rest of the bus passengers, sitting silently or busily texting their conversations?

That brings us to the art of thumb-conversation.  Texting.  Messaging. I’m a bit old-school and text with my index finger – racing across the virtual keyboard much to the amusement of the younger generations.  It’s a dead giveaway of one’s age, no matter how young one might appear.  But, it struck me that the younger generations are still very busily engaged in conversation, in fact even more so, than their parents’ generation.   In fact, they are almost constantly in conversation, for better or for worse.

I’m also guilty of spending way too much time on social media and engaging in texting when I could call. But somehow, it’s become the norm. The desire “not to disturb” someone by actually calling and speaking to them.

When did speaking to someone become “disturbing” them?  And how much is too much texting?

Does this busy preoccupation with constant interaction leave any room for one’s own thoughts and feelings?    As much as putting one’s “two-bob’s worth” forward in a real conversation was sometimes a bit annoying, is the digital conversational world creating more angst in its participants because of the abundance of input from all directions?  All done so quietly…. But there in print, for you to read, re-read and, so often, misinterpret or be misinterpreted.

These ladies could speak to each other and make pretty clear what their viewpoint was, leaving no doubt at all.  The digital cohort, on the other hand, runs the gauntlet of constant misinterpretation, being held to ransom for a throwaway line, and the ultimate punishment, having their words shared in a public forum in order to mock, shame or embarrass.

I recall how happy I felt being watching those talking women……I saw humans doing what they do best.  Interacting face to face, sharing stories and passing the time with genial exchanges – a remnant of a slower time when engaging others in discussion was a real part of one’s day.

I believe that those little earphones are actually a blocking device to stop anyone talking to you.  Sitting next to an ear-phoned person one is not likely to ask them, “what do you think of the new development down on the corner of our street?”, and even if you got through, the reply would likely be, “oh, I haven’t noticed,” as their gaze returns to their MP3 playlist.

There’s another problem.  Does anyone actually look at their surroundings anymore?  I mean, REALLY look?  When not busy texting or scrolling through their music collection, is there time to notice the new trees that were planted on the median strip, the artwork in the public space, the shop that’s closed down, the old lady struggling to get off the bus, the person with tears in their eyes, the child about to step perilously close to the 3 lane roadway, the glorious sun reflected off the river, the spring blossoms peeking out from sleepy tree branches, the aroma of the rose garden in the dilapidated front yard of an ageing house, the birds pecking at the crumbs in the Maccas carpark, the lonely man desperately in need of a conversation, the great orb spider hanging in its spectacular dew-sprinkled web?

These and other things are what keeps me wanting to put down my smartphone when I’m out.  It doesn’t always work as I, too, have a busy life and want to utilize my time as best as I can.  But the feeling I get when I put it away and take the time to look around me at the people and things that make up this world, with all its imperfections, is still worth the effort.

These days I have to escape on camping trips to places with no phone connection in order to have real “digital detox” as they say.  Why is it we cannot simply switch the darned things off?

Next time you’re out, take a look around.  Who is sitting beside you?  If they are over 70 years of age, they will probably have a story to tell you that’s more interesting than any digital conversation you’re likely to have that day.

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