At a recent family dinner, my husband, Kevin, recounted his harrowing commute home. The traffic, of course, was awful, and shortly after he had fired up Google Maps to find a shortcut over back roads, his smartphone battery died. He was a half-hour from home and yet completely lost.
“I didn’t have my charger. I had to stop at a gas station!” he announced incredulously, raising his hands at such a preposterous idea.
I smiled as I imagined a scenario from a simpler time: Kevin navigating an unfamiliar country road without GPS, spotting a gas station with his very own eyes, going inside to talk to an actual person — no doubt a crusty old New Englander who would bask in Kevin’s helplessness for a few painful moments before begrudgingly giving directions. How novel, I thought. With Siri and Google always in our pockets, we rarely get the chance to seek out the kindness (or something like that) of strangers.
Kevin likes to joke that my best relationships are with people I don’t know — talking to strangers is one of my favorite things. Lately, among the crush of grocery carts at Market Basket, I’ve met a middle-aged woman who feeds her dog organic coconut oil, an older man who has a different silly hat for every holiday, a woman who confided to me the burden of her aging parents in whispers, and a grief-stricken woman whose sister had recently died.
That last woman surprisingly had me laughing so hard I was crying. She told me her elderly aunt — who had just gotten her first smartphone — had texted her: “So sorry about your sister. LOL.” She had thought LOL meant lots of love. (The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik admitted making the same mistake, sending this note to his sister during her divorce: “We’re all behind you and beside you, LOL — your brother.”)
On some lonely days — days of driving in traffic myself, running errands, navigating big-box stores — these conversations are the only company that I get, and I treasure them. But we are never really alone now, are we? Encircled by virtual buddies — vast social networks that distract us from loneliness but don’t cure it — we no longer have to look up when we are in line at the grocery store. When we can chat with hundreds of Facebook friends at any moment, it would seem somehow weird to talk to the stranger sitting next to us on the park bench. We are so addicted to the digital flask in our pockets — the limitless wellspring of Internet information and superficial relationships — that we cannot focus on the real people before us.
The greater misstep, of course, is not paying attention to the people we do know. At a park not long ago, I saw a young girl give a flower to her mother, who took it without glancing up from her phone. Nearby, parents and their two children sat in silence, each playing Pokemon Go.
Tech-related distractions have been stealing our attention for decades: television instead of dinner at the table, video games instead of board games, Internet in place of interaction. Studies have shown that even the presence of a smartphone — just lying there innocently on the kitchen table — affects the emotional and empathetic depths of conversation. In a world of divided attention and constant interruption, there are fewer meaningful exchanges — and I’m sure many more that never happen at all.
I went to college before the days of intrusive devices, when face-to-face conversation was considered a skill. My fondest memories are of meeting with my essay adviser at the school coffee shop, where we would discuss Hamlet for hours. Whenever Mr. Blistein arrived, he would take off his watch and lay it on the table. At first I thought this was so he wouldn’t lose track of time. He later explained that it was a traditional gesture that meant I have all the time in the world for you.
Now no one seems to have time for the world. I see groups of teenagers walking down the street, all staring at their phones. I see friends sitting in restaurants, together but all ignoring one another as they text others. I see people holding a door open for me but not sparing a single glance up from their screens in greeting. Is it any surprise I talk to any electronically untethered stranger I can find in the grocery store?
At the table, Kevin’s voice rose. His story of being lost and then found at the gas station was drawing to a close. I eagerly awaited the colorful description of the stranger who had pointed him home, but it turns out Kevin didn’t need the kindness of a stranger after all.
“They had chargers at the gas station!” he said triumphantly. “I bought a new cord.”
Laurie Swope is a photographer based in Marblehead. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.