Talk about the old ways: the era of tea parties, balls, sitting on the porch, picnics, moonlight games in the village square, pen pals, letter writing or carting a journal around and talking. Yes, talking.
When a friend shot me email weeks ago his opening lines read, I know we talk on Whatsapp and exchange pleasantries, but it has been a while I sent you a mail. Then he proceeded to write about a conversation he’d been having with another friend, and I chipped in. Basically it was a really long exchange.
When did we lose that? The genuineness of getting to know another person I mean. Back in secondary school, I had a pen pal, Melissa. We would write pages of our lives and the things we would love to do when we grow up. I remember taking some money off my monthly allowance, rushing to the Business Studies department to buy a double stamp, because Mel lived in the States and it would take the better part of a week before it was delivered. But it was worth it, and I was excited because this was another person miles away talking to me.
Someone once said that the greatest problem of mankind is communication. It was probably said so many years ago, but the problem keeps deepening. Because one day the internet came and we shoved our pens behind ears to welcome typing on a computer. Then the mobile device got revolutionized and we loved the SMS feature. What no one knew was how high mobile tariffs would cause us to shrink pages of text into a single screen. I never imagined saving spit could become so distasteful, but it did when Instant Messaging took over our lives. And there is Facebook and Twitter where we talk about everything meaningless ranging from our latest breakfast to the most recent crush.
It’s like the world is on a road to talk less. In this mad dash for followers and shallow friendships, we have learned to circle ourselves with people without substance. Not that there are people with nothing to offer, because I believe there is a bit of treasure to mine from every man and a story to unearth , we just do not take the time to do that. There is a veil in this new system; shrinking lives into 140 characters or less. We practice Word economics, maximizing space, minimizing ink; and the 80-20 principle of learning to achieve more with minimal effort.
But that is the problem. Some people call it the lost art of conversation, and it is right. We have stopped communicating with one another and have begun some monkey dance to popularity. Can we just pause? Look around and ask ourselves how many people we know, I mean actually know, beyond twitter handles and what’s-on-your-mind updates. Past the hash tag activism and weekly wars and the snippet of inscriptions in the beauty pageant that’s become Instagram. Let’s just stop and ask ourselves who all these strangers are around us.
At one time I mused about the West and the Shrink culture. Why pay all that money just to have someone listen to you talk? Well, why not? People die from depression every day and we say to ourselves, He seemed so happy; had a bright future ahead. When what we should be saying is, I should have paid more attention, gone visiting and asked about his day. We are rapidly annihilating one another. We are running through all these costumes and cosmetics it’s become difficult to see who is underneath. We are walking past our neighbours without the faintest idea who they are. We are judging people so fast without offering the courtesy of an introduction. We are becoming lonely people.
There is this thing about a blank space, that endless stretch of white. It screams possibilities. When I pull out my notebook and pick up my pen, I don’t know what’s going to end up on that page. But fifteen minutes later when I look, there are scribbled words reflecting my thoughts there. When the stranger seated beside me on the bus says hello and I smile back in response, we talk. We talk about everything and nothing; but in that space of time just before I get off, I know more about him in minutes than I do about some year old friends.
You know we can be blank spaces too — to ourselves, for the world. We carry around limitless possibility; locked away in our minds, hidden by the shadows we call self. It’s the stuff of friendships, the foundation of trust. And every time we bother to give attention to another person, just like the blank pages of my notebook we are saying to them, I want to hear your story.