I had some fun today teaching my music history students at York University how to dance a Pavan, and explaining how a renaissance person was expected to know how to dance, sing, play an instrument, recite poetry in Latin and hold their own in a polite debate. I asked them for their thoughts about what social skills were essential today. They said it is essential to read (English) and to be able to text quickly.

Clearly, I set them up for that response. I know full well that texting on a cell phone is a priority for them. If I had more time, I would have shared with them the way things were, back in the 20th century.

It used to be that you’d have dinner with a friend, and they would talk to you.

You might make a discriminating comment about the food. They might recall a past occasion when the same dish was served, but in a different sauce or with an exotic vegetable. You might progress to inquire about your friend’s parents and “how they are doing” or ask about work, or what they think of what’s going on in politics, or what movies they’ve seen. They might ask where you have travelled, or how the children or pets or relatives are acting up lately. In those awkward moments when the conversation became a bit slow, you might look around the restaurant and comment on the furnishings, the lighting, the odd colour of the wallpaper, the fine view, or say, “what a lovely jacket, wherever did you get it?”

Granted, this was not profound conversation or Latin poetry. It was only a lame, imperfect form of communication, but through those trivial bites of information we learned about our friends, what was going on in their lives, and how we could be of help. Moreover we communicated not only through words, but also through our mutual presence in the same space.

So the new way is different.

Imagine a couple of nice people seated in a restaurant with crisp linen, a stunning floral arrangement, shining utensils, glistening china, superb food and attentive waiters. The difference is both parties are engaged with small hand-held devices, each in conversation with someone else, who is likely far away – or at least probably not in the same room – but could be, actually. I imagine there is little character space for small talk, let alone big talk.

Am I missing something here? My students need to enlighten me!

In the olden times you would stand at a bus stop, or go out for a smoke, or wait in a cue, or sit in a seat before a concert, or buy groceries: these were occasions to interact with people around you. As you well know, now these rare communal moments are opportunities to exchange text messages with absent parties.

I confess, I don’t actually own a cell phone so the compulsion to be in constant digital contact with other humans is mysterious to me. I am waiting for your compelling argument (polite debate only please) and perhaps I will be converted to the new way of things.

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5 Responses to How it used to be

  1. Matthew says:

    You are already enlightened, Stephanie, and since it would seem that no one else will do it, I think you should take a little bit of extra time to talk to the students about the value of non-screen communication in a social setting. If they are to become artists your students need some manners, since so much of our job involves reputation. As well, unplugging and letting the mind wander allows all sorts of ideas to simmer and bubble up from the unconscious, so amusing/occupying oneself continuously gets in the way if creativity…

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      We who teach could step back from technology as well. Tuesday’s class was a potential disaster since the AV equipment broke down, so I couldn’t present my powerpoint pictures, play any recorded music, project scores or use Youtube. So we just had to read aloud, play the music ourselves on whatever instruments we had and dance a pavan. I think this was a much better experience than the original hi-tech plan.

  2. karen Kitchen says:

    Happy to know that it isn’t just grey haired people who refuse to spend their lives staring at a tiny screen. I confess I have a cell phone but it’s the kind that flips open. I talk to people …on the bus, in line at the supermarket…just today I had a lovely face to face conversation in the library with a perfect stranger. We exchanged views on several authors and introduced one another to a writer that was new. Now that’s communication!

  3. Andrea says:

    I quite agree with this post actually, and I myself try to engage in more interaction with people around me. There are times when we do miss those who are far from us, and of course we would turn to the cellphone, but there is something much more magical about live-interaction which I miss. People these days are so uptight (and maybe even anxious?) of talking to people/strangers or being stared down at when they walk into the bus. I really wish we would spend more time in person than over the internet, but then again, maybe we are all just addicted to technology.

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