There was a time when riding in an elevator was a little uncomfortable. I would be standing there alone when the doors would open and another man would step in. Perhaps he was a little older, or different from me in some other way. You could feel a little tension for a minute, and then, much to his credit, the other passenger would try to break the ice with something like:
“How about them Cubs?” You could substitute “Cubs” with “Bears”, “Bulls”, “Blackhawks” or “White Sox.” It would be an attempt to start a friendly conversation using the universal language of professional sports.
In response I would smile and try to say something positive. But if the poor fellow tried to engage me in conversation about “last night’s game,” I would have to sadly admit that I don’t follow sports. And that would be the end of that. As much as I really don’t care much for professional sports in general, I would feel bad because the other guy was genuinely trying to reach out and be friendly.
This is not so much an issue today. Now, anyone else in the elevator is likely to either be listening to something on a headset or deeply involved with his or her smartphone. No pressure to make conversation. Lucky me.
In her upcoming book, You Lost Me @ Hello, the Advancement Coach (and my wife), Donna Smith Bellinger, comments that the lively art of conversation is dying amid a flood of e-mails, tweets and posts. We were vacationing in Disneyworld last year, having lunch at a little fast food restaurant when a family of six breezed in and sat at the table next to us. This was Disneyworld, after all, so we were prepared for the pleasant noise of kids chatting, laughing and having a good time. Instead, they sat down and there was silence. We glanced over and saw that each family member, from Mom and Dad to the little pre-schooler, had his or her own little electronic device; a smartphone, a tablet or some sort of video game. Each were completely involved in their own little virtual world, looking up only long enough to order lunch. When it came, they ate quietly in the glow of their digital lives.
Donna and I were pleasantly surprised last week when we were riding the bus. A man got on with his four little boys, one a mere baby. Instead of blocking the aisles with the stroller, he took the baby out, folded the stroller and stuck it under the seat. One of his boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old sat next to me, looked at me with a smile and said proudly, “that’s my little brother!” gesturing to a handsome lad sitting across from us. During the entire ride, the boys talked and laughed, in English and French, and actively engaged other passengers. People who would normally sit in their emotional cocoon, was either talking with these amazing little kids or just enjoying them. By the time they got off, half of the riders on the bus were waving “bye bye.”
What was different about them? Unlike our Disneyworld friends, they clearly had parents who were active in their lives. None of them had any electronic toys with them. They were on their way to their weekly trip to the zoo, to experience the real world, instead of a virtual one.
I asked Donna, who had had a conversation with the father, why she thought these little boys were so bright, well behaved and engaging.
“They are not Americans,” she said.