Bailey Kadian: What we miss while we're looking down

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 5:34pm

You walk into the elevator. I’m standing right next to you, on my way down to floor one. This is our typical morning routine. You have pulled out your phone, your safety net of sorts and your crutch to avoid the situation that you're in. My eye contact has immediately prompted you to take out your phone and pull it closer to your eyes. You must be looking at something. The more I try to study the screen you’re so enthralled by, the more I realize I am mistaken. You’re not typing an email or a text. You’re not reading anything. You have your phone open to its home screen. And you’re just staring at it.

This situation exposes many problems — but my objective in describing it is to discuss our lack of communication, both in terms of desire and ability. I want to understand how on earth we have reached this point. Where suddenly, a 20-second ride from floor six to floor one has proven impossible for most people to look up from their screens and say “hi” to the person standing next to them.

You may be wondering why I didn’t say “hi,” right? Here I am talking about how we don’t communicate at all with those around us and yet, I didn’t say anything first. Well, I’m afraid I’ll throw you off guard. I’m afraid you’ll look up and feel forced to converse with me, and thus frustrated that I took you away from the crucial task of studying your home screen. I’m afraid I am taking you out of your normal morning routine. And most of all, I’m afraid that this has really become the normal morning routine.

Recently, I watched a video about a man named Otis Johnson, who was in prison for 44 years. Following his parole, he was sitting in Times Square, observing the people around him, and was struck by the phenomenon of iPhones held in front of faces with headphones plugged in. He noticed that everyone seemed to be talking to themselves. They didn’t look up to see where they were walking (really smart in Times Square), and they weren’t conversing with the people around them. This was puzzling to him, considering that 44 years prior, he remembered people were engaged, they looked around and they talked to those around them.

To address what I think of technology and our generation of smartphones, I would have to compose a separate column. But it’s worth recognizing that we have become dependent on them in ways that stretch beyond sole convenience. We shouldn’t feel “thrown off,” or at times, really scared, if someone says “hi, how are you?” in public. Of course, every situation calls for proper judgment and maybe there are moments when staying quiet really is most appropriate.

But in the elevator, on my way to class, I don’t think it is so outrageous to converse with someone who is also in the elevator, and may also be on her way to class. However, it isn’t routine, and people simply don’t do it.

During my freshman year of college, we were all advised to attend the New Student Convocation. When I attended with the rest of my residence hall, the CSG president at that time gave a speech, which urged us to “look up.”

He insisted that we look up and see what surrounds us, who surrounds us and then engage with those things. There is about a two-week window at the start of the school year when it seems our student body commits to social interaction. Then we get started, we settle in and we plug in. Many opportunities to engage, learn, grow and meet really interesting, intelligent people quickly vanish as time goes on.

You can tell me you’re shy, you’re an introvert, you’re an INFP according to the Myers-Briggs test, so it wouldn’t be natural for you to say “hi” to me first. I’m not suggesting we have a full out conversation about our hopes and dreams in the elevator. I’m just suggesting we say “hi” to one another, and that it isn’t an odd thing to do. The speech at the convocation was built on a lot of truth, I just didn’t realize at the time that while observing those around me look down and disengage, I would become like them in the process.

The moments I have fought the urge to stay silent, I have actually met some wonderful people. Last year, I complimented a girl standing next to me on the pants she was wearing. She thanked me, asked what I was studying and I later explained that I hope to attend law school. She then told me she was in the law school, and she still remains a good friend that I go to for my various pre-law questions. It took almost nothing to talk and discuss our interests.

Saying “hi” to the person next to you is probably not taking you away from anything important most of the time. If it is crucial that you respond to an email or text, I can’t stop you. But my message is clear: Look up, look around and engage with all that surrounds you. You might like what you see.