Fantastic Friday: The Lost Art of Conversation

Last month, on the way to a (wonderful) vacation in Myrtle Beach, we made our annual stop at Parker’s Barbeque in Wilson, North Carolina. We knew the place was good the first year we stopped–because we didn’t get to eat there. It was recommended by Yelp or TripAdvisor, and we arrived on Sunday during prime lunch time. With such a long drive, we didn’t have time to wait, so we had to pass it up that first year. It was so crowded, we knew it was good.

The next year, we learned to leave our house earlier, so we made it before the lunch crowd. We’ve been coming ever since—each time we head to Myrtle Beach.

When we stopped last month, we were greeted by attentive employees, standing ready to serve. Not one of them had a cell phone. Not one of them looked distracted or disdainful. This shouldn’t be an anomaly, but based on the metropolitan suburb where we live, it’s getting harder to find attentive employees unfocused on their phones. Just before vacation, I saw an employee texting in the aisles of his store of employment. The difference was insane.

So, score one point for Parker’s.

Courtesy of http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/130708143604-parkers-barbecue-horizontal-large-gallery.jpg

But then, as we were waiting (about twelve seconds) for our food, I reached toward my bag to check my phone—I hadn’t checked email for several hours and was getting “that itch.” What if an editor was trying to contact me? What if I had a new blog comment to moderate? What if the world needed saving? But something stopped me.

I looked around the room as I noticed it was filled with an unfamiliar noise: friendly chatter.

Looking at the packed dining room, I saw table after table full of people of all walks of life…

…and none of them had a cell phone out.

Instead, they were all talking to each other. You know, having actual, genuine conversations. Making eye contact. Laughing. Interacting. I watched as two girls competed for their grandfather’s attention while their parents talked with each other.

I watched as a group of “grown-ups” seemed to be engaged in a serious conversation. As couples chatted like they were on a first date. Laughter. Giggles. Banter. When we were leaving, an older couple stopped us, commenting on my husband’s William and Mary hat. We had a conversation about Williamsburg, our upcoming vacation, and the lack of cell phones in the restaurant—a comfortable conversation that lasted until their food arrived, at which point we each wished each other well and continued our journey to Myrtle.

I left the restaurant in a bit of a daze. I felt like I had entered another world, perhaps another time—one in which people still knew how to have conversations with each other. People who knew the art of eye contact and reading body language. People who didn’t need a phone to entertain them 24/7. I actually regretted the fact that I would have to leave that world and—when vacation ended—enter a world in which cell phones seem to be attached at the hip. A world in which restaurants are relatively quiet because people—grown-ups and children alike—are pacified by their phones.

I think Einstein or maybe Orwell would have something to say about how “far” we’ve come with our technology and how “sophistication” has killed the art of conversation.

I wish everyone—especially those who live in a technology-rich location like mine—could have the experience of a place like Parker’s, especially the students I teach, the ones who seem to be unable to live for more than ten minutes without a phone. The experience reminded me of growing up in a time without cell phones, when families “had” to interact and get to know each other while waiting for food. When we could make eye contact and read body language instead of hiding behind the comfort of a glowing screen.

Even though I only get to go once a year, visiting a place like Parker’s is good for my soul. We all need a little reminding from time to time. The best part about life on Earth is not the latest smartphone or the best 4G network. It’s the people, our interactions with each other, and the stories we share.

I look forward to my next opportunity to put down the phone and hope that as my life continues, I don’t need so much reminding.