Thumbs Up or Down, We’re too Distracted to Talk
“Excuse me,” I called in frustration to a circle of friends during a recent happy hour on the deck of a favorite local watering hole. “Doesn’t anyone want to talk?”
No one even looked at me.
“Say, what?” replied Ed as he stared at a screen full of tiny pictures on his smart phone, tapping one image to make it larger.
“You know, talk. It involves using verbal language.”
“Look here.” Ed showed me his phone. “This guy is really hot and Grindr says he’s less than 30 feet away.”
“Yes, I’d guess about six feet. That’s him leaning against the bar right behind you. You know there are lots of good-looking people here tonight if you’d just lift your head.”
“OMG. It says his name is Kyle and he’s 31. Do you think I should send him a message?”
“Or you could just take a few steps and say hello.”
Ed, who is younger than most of our group, blushed and gave me an incredulous look. “I’m too shy to do that.”
“Well, that’s the way we did it in the olden days.”
I started to laugh and turned to some of my more mature friends to ask what they thought Ed should do. But they, too, were all face down in their hand-held devices. Like Ed, Jeff was surfing his Grindr app, which had just alerted him that Ed was very close by. “When did he get here?” Jeff asked me, and I rolled my eyes.
Bob was checking his emails. Mike was typing away on his Facebook Timeline about what a beautiful evening it was to be outside taking in the sunset view over the water. And Randy, I swear, was checking his hair. He apparently had discovered a mirror app.
It seems like just yesterday—well maybe a few months ago—that I wrote a column for these pages about how cellular telephones were beginning to disrupt our social lives, what with so many people jabbering intrusively in restaurants, shops, theaters, and elsewhere in public. That was 13 years ago, before the introduction of texting, addictive social networking sites, and endless attention-diverting apps, all of which have made live interaction hardly worth the bother.
At least the noise levels in public places have quieted in recent years. Few people talk on their phones anymore—or to one another. They’re too busy thumbing.
I am not totally immune from such 21st century contrivances but I try to keep my phone in my pocket in social situations. I still find reward in seeing someone’s facial expressions during a conversation and hearing their tone of voice in reply.
But a new study by Harvard University neuroscientists indicates that unspoken online communications may be even more satisfying for many. As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found (not surprisingly) that we all like to brag and tell others what we feel or think—and that doing so gives our brains the same dopamine-related pleasure effect as food, sex, and money. In fact, the scientists reported that about 40 percent of our everyday statements involve telling other people what’s on our minds—and for many of the people tested an opportunity for “self-disclosure” proved to be even more motivating than an offer of money.
Those of us who write personal opinion columns or blogs are classic examples of souls who thrive on doling out our thoughts and feelings. But, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other social media, almost everyone now has access to instant platforms from which they may vent at will. And those platforms can be more gratifying than face-to-face conversations because the person venting doesn’t have to be interrupted by anyone else’s viewpoints. Rather like an old-fashioned snail-mailed letter, with online messaging the expression of oneself need not be a two-way street.
Although I like to read the reactions to my columns and Facebook posts (and am usually happy to engage in debate), I am definitely guilty of wallowing in the dopamine stupor of telling people what’s on my mind—whether the topic is amusing, amazing, or just plain aggravating. One day this month I couldn’t stay away from Facebook, posting dozens of times and reacting to scores of other folks’ updates. From the sheer volume of related traffic I encountered, many of you were doing the same.
It was the politically schizophrenic week when North Carolina passed its especially regressive constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and all forms of domestic partnership rights. I was furious the morning after its passage and had to blast the state, religious zealots, voters who failed to turn out at the polls and pretty much anyone else I could possibly blame. I felt a little better getting it off my chest but remained in a sour mood until a few hours later when the web began buzzing: President Obama was telling ABC News that he personally supports gay marriage. My Facebook tone turned on a dime, as I (and tens of thousands of you) began calling out our thanks and congratulations and expressing hope that a new day was at hand. I even quoted the old saw: the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
I invested many hours on Facebook that day, and I could have cared less that no one was paying me for the pearls of wisdom I imparted. My messages were first a coping mechanism and then a way to express my exhilaration.
I’ll leave you with my favorite personal posting of that day (and the one that has garnered the most responses). I share it because I’m so proud of the accomplishment it represents for my spouse and me—and because more people need to be made aware of the longevity of many of our relationships. I wish each of you as much happiness in your life:
“With gay marriage dominating the news, John and I would like to point out that we are celebrating our 39th anniversary this weekend—marking the beginning of our 40th year together. To those narrow-minded Americans who have denied our legal rights to the benefits of marriage, we have prevailed despite you. To the right-wing morons (such as those in NC) who call LGBT marriage a ‘doomed social experiment,’ how many of you have been with your life partner for four decades? Thank you President Obama for standing up for us. We are way overdue for justice.”
Email Bill Sievert or contact him via Facebook, where he goes by William. His critically acclaimed comic novel Sawdust Confessions is available at amazon.com and other online booksellers.