May 2018

Anti-Social Media?

Author: Vinton Gary

One year, we took my bride off to Mother’s Day brunch at a very fancy hotel in downtown Philadelphia. She was thrilled that all three kids got up, gave her gifts and cards, were well-behaved in church and came with us (sans the usual grousing) to have breakfast in a fine restaurant on this, her very special morning. We drove to the city, parked the car and went up a winding staircase to the mezzanine level of an opulent five-star hotel lobby to get to the restaurant. It had a balcony-style floor plan, extending out over the lush lobby, where the major architectural feature was a three-floors-tall glass wall on three sides. The view from our white linen-covered table showed the morning sun washing over the sidewalks of Broad Street, painting them with bright sunlight on a beautiful spring morning.

My wife beamed as her brood all sat themselves around her at the table and smiled with great pride and satisfaction as they chattered away about how they made her Mother’s Day cards and why they selected their little handmade gifts, all trying to get her attention and praise, which was of course lovingly given—all very heart-warming just like in a Frank Capra movie. Then I saw him come in.

An obviously successful, smartly dressed young man accompanied by an elderly lady walked through the restaurant following the maître d to a cozy table for two. She was quite aristocratic looking and very stylish as well—obviously, the young man’s mom, I thought.

They too, were having Mother’s Day brunch at the hotel. How nice, I thought. This young fellow of about 35 years has taken his mom out to brunch for Mother’s Day. He pulled out her chair (good for you, I said to myself) and his mom sat down with a proud “thank you” smile on her face, looking up at her son. He went to the other side of the table and took his seat. That’s great, I thought, and hoped my kids would do the same thing if someday I were not around to take their mom to brunch. Then it all went to hell.

The young man pulled a cellphone out of his jacket pocket and dialed up a call. A disappointed but tolerant smile came across his mom’s face as she grudgingly nodded to him, apparently indicating she understood. He proceeded to spend the rest of the brunch either on phone calls or tapping away texting. He rarely even looked up at her from the phone, and I could swear he never said a word during the entire brunch—with the possible exception of placing his food order or requesting more coffee. I was appalled. I watched that lovely lady’s eyes wander around the room, looking for something…anything…with which to distract herself or occupy her attention while her son was on the phone. Her eyes fell upon our table several times, and I observed her longing smiles as my wife and kids and I exchanged dialogue, laughed, argued and, as parents often do, corrected our kids’ table manners.

At one point, the lady’s eyes crossed mine and locked, and I simply nodded to her. She smiled back with head tilted and a longing look at my family that almost made me cry. I kept waiting for her son to put the phone away with some apology and focus all his attention on his mom on her day. He never did. I think the only time he looked up was to ask the waiter for the check. This scene is still etched in my memory and made that Mother’s Day one of the saddest days in my life. I felt great sympathy for that mom.

As time moves on, I continue to observe this unsettling, saddening behavior. How could anyone do this? How can any so-called “social media” make people so anti-social? This new communications technology seems to defeat all conversation and, in many instances, replaces face-to-face dialogue with texts, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts, email, et al.

All three of my children are now adults, out of my house, living on their own and supporting themselves and their own families. And today, I sit at a table with them—or around the patio at home, or in the living room of one of their homes—look around, and start counting how many people in the same room are staring down at their “hand-held-devices,” which by their very existence, seem to defeat all conversation between people or, at minimum, constantly interrupt the flow of conversation.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I believe wireless, hand-held devices are amazingly useful for information gathering, emergency ASAP contacts, business utilization and individual entertainment, like when you’re stuck at the airport due to yet another so-called “weather” delay. But socially… The social interaction I grew up with and was taught was a critical aspect of friendship development, dating, relationship building, business communication, people evaluation and more. I see that the art of conversing is dying, and I have to credit this to the very same technology. It can’t and should not replace face-to-face contact. Ask anyone who has ever reacted incorrectly to or misread a text, tweet, or email.

I can recall a real conversation generated by a misinterpreted text to my daughter: “Mom, you used all caps, so I thought you were mad and yelling at me” with my wife responding (verbally now don’t forget), “No, no honey, I just didn’t know I had the caps-lock button on.”
So, tell me, how does one express the tone of voice, a sympathetic look, the sighing, the crying, the body language of a real conversation in a text? Oh, I know somebody will say, “You can use emojis to do that.” Can an emoji put its arm around you or give you a hug?

Shake your hand with a firm grip, laugh till it cries, or look you in the eye and tell if you’re speaking the truth? The sellers of the hardware and software apps are trying to convince us it can all be done online. But those of us who used to enjoy family dinners, face-to-face business meetings, topical debates and dialogues—those of us who have watched this technology grow, know better.

Ask any parent, grandparent or business person. Would you rather have the folks you’re sitting with put the phone down and talk to you, or not? And if not, why are you sitting down with them in the first place? Just sayin’.

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