On the bus home from class recently I witnessed a interesting phenomenon. I was sitting in the front section (facing inward) and across from me were four students facing my direction.
In the least creepy way possible, I watched them intently the whole eight-minute bus ride. All four of them, for the entire time, had their heads down and eyes glued to their phones. Without exaggeration, not one of them looked up a single time except for one girl as we neared our destination. They didn’t have headphones in, either.
Now, I recognize the possibility that these students could have had urgent text messages to send or respond to. Or perhaps they’re introverted. Or maybe they just downloaded the hottest new apps (Angry Birds?) and were desperately trying to level up. Who knows? But hey, they are free to live as they’d like. This is just my commentary on the overarching phenomenon: not even proximity can keep up from drifting apart. As Sherry Turkle asks, are we “Alone Together?” On the bus, it certainly seemed like it.
Here is what I found most troubling: unless it was indicated by other people on the bus, Albert Einstein could have been sitting right next to these students, resurrected from the dead, and not one of them would have noticed (except for maybe his smell – but let’s assume he was smelling fresh). My final thought before leaving the bus was, “Geez, if I were Barack Obama right now, I’d get off the bus in a moment and not a single one of those students would have even known!”
There are incredibly talented people at Penn State (and in your life, too). Any one of those four students could have been an award-winning athlete, scholar, entrepreneur, business-owner, visionary, and so on. And there they were, right next to each other for eight minutes, with conversational riches at their fingertips, yet choosing to remain isolated and uninterested. How often do I see this? Too often How often do you see this?
How many unbelievable encounters do we miss out on every day because we’re preoccupied with ourselves…and our phones? How many incredible people, with incredible stories of triumph and hardship, even miracle workers, have we sat next to and ignored?
Am I saying we should initiate conversations with random people? Well, yes. Can it be difficult? Yes. Can it be enlightening, rewarding, and life-changing, too? Yes! I know many of us grew up with the “Don’t talk to strangers” advice drilled into our heads, but let’s hold that thought for a second. Looking back at your life, how often has this advice proved beneficial? How often has someone violently responded to you asking, “Hey, how are you?” Not often? In most cases, being ignored is the worst possible outcome.
Just recently I began a conversation with a complete stranger; perhaps this example may provide you some comfort. I approached a female at a coffee shop downtown and asked, “Hey, are those leisure books you’re reading? I love to read.” She said, “No, they’re actually for class,” to which I replied, “Oh, well what are they about?” Coincidentally, they were about education systems (I love education) and she was an Education Policy PhD student. We ending up talking for nearly a half-hour about education systems all over the world, and of course, our own ideas on the subject.
It was a learning experience for us both, and I left feeling absolutely elated. She wasn’t a spooky, dangerous stranger. She was a student with a story, a real human being who enjoys other human beings; it was great! And the best part of all – when I checked my phone after 30 minutes of being away, the world was still spinning!