One of the great benefits of attending an academic conference is the opportunity to make small talk with interesting people. You're standing in the coffee line, waiting for an elevator, or loafing between sessions and you just start chatting with someone in the same boat, and before you know it you're laughing or learning something or, at the very least, thanking your lucky stars that you're not in that person's predicament.
I fear, however, that these serendipities are coming to an end. I base this on my experience at a recent academic meeting where no one was interested in small talk, preferring to spend down time staring at tiny screens.
Now I'm the first to admit that I'll never win the Most Outgoing prize, but over the years I've developed some pretty reliable techniques for engaging in meaningless chatter with strangers. These skills, however, failed utterly at the meeting I attended over the weekend. In a daylong event, I managed to engage exactly one person in chit-chat; every other opportunity was rebuffed by devotees of tiny screens.
I realize that it's a waste of time to try to chat with people engrossed in their phones or tablets in public, but finding anyone not so occupied is a challenge. It's as if they're so fearful of venturing into public alone that they have to stay tethered to the nanny lest someone approach with poisoned lollipops.
I know I'm not the first to notice the impending death of small talk with strangers in public places, but this was the first time I felt utterly cut off from everyone around me simply because I was busy watching people instead of screens. People-watching was once a pretty interesting practice, but people attached to screens are boring. It's like being surrounded by zombies, except the brains being consumed are their own.
The cure is simple, of course: join the crowd devoted to avoiding engagement with the crowd. But I'm not quite ready to zombify myself. I hold out hope that somewhere out there in smartphoneland there exist a few other holdouts who still hold dear the art of conversation. If only I could figure out where they're hiding.
(Maybe there's an app for that?)