In a connected world, we’re still learning to engage

April 18, 2013

A Chinese woman, her face an ancient landscape of lines and folds and creases, started a conversation with me on a train. Nothing of import was discussed. Nothing substantial was learnt about each other. But we made human contact.

She made me smile for five minutes and three stations. I don’t know her name, but she waved goodbye. It was a fine moment. In an age where we are invisible to each other, she saw me.

People don’t acknowledge each other. In the train, we don’t talk, hardly even an “excuse me”. In offices, we often slink to our desks, settle in and carry on. We’re turning into an incurious, insular tribe, especially in a time when we need to understand each other better.

It is as if engagement scares us. We text swiftly on our phones but are often slow to talk face to face. Language is the rope that binds us but we’re forgetting how to use it. We barely converse because we hardly look each other in the eye. We scroll the world through our iPads, but by looking up we might truly see it. We’re besotted by machines but as an interacting device, another person is much more fun. It is truly a human experience.

A friend listens to his electrician and learns about corruption in India. Another, here, deliberately stops for five minutes to talk to his neighbour. A third tells me about learning toughness from a passing conversation with a woman farmer. Always there’s a connection found, a complaint to share, a feeling in common.

A reader called a few weeks ago, an elderly Englishman revisiting the city and staying with a local friend. We talked cricket, the war days, writing and Singapore. It was 15 pleasant minutes where two men of different ages and nationalities traversed various geographies together.

Two years ago, in the restaurant opposite my hotel in Guangzhou, I discovered the cook came from the small India town where my parents live. We talked Bollywood movies, long journeys and missed home together. All manner of excellent and unintended benefits followed: I noticed thereafter that my dinner servings were rather generous.

Engagement comes when we pause our lives and give each other time. To talk to another human being is an education. Unlike the text message which has no personality, the talker does. In two minutes we can register dress, taste, confidence, perfume, tone, emotion, humour, prejudice. Conversation teaches us difference, it teaches us how to listen. How else do we learn about people?

Not everyone wants to talk and silence is no sin. But if we’re so clear about demarcating borders, about not letting people in, about owning our own space, then what happens during a minor crisis? Will we not engage because we’re not used to it? A young woman fell while disembarking from a bus near my house. One person helped, the rest watched. This city is replete with kind people but maybe we’re conditioned to think it’s not our business.

And so, instead of engaging, many people prefer to transact. The woman in the shirt shop is barely acknowledged because we’ve turned her into a human vending machine. Get this shirt, this colour. The waitress in the restaurant is our moving microwave with a name tag we refuse to read. Except if you actually use her name, ask where she’s from, spend a minute with her, she often alters. She’s no longer a thing but a smiling person.

Of course, some of us are shy. And wary of each other. And culturally conditioned not to engage. But we also suffer from a modern and shallow condition called “busyness”. We rush, we’re late, we don’t notice people. Our clocks have 23 hours, our weeks have six days, and conversation has become a luxury. Or so we insist. But if we’re progressive, we’re also losing part of ourselves.

Our parents did it better. They owned none of the communication tools we have, no Twitter, no Facebook, no e-mail, yet they engaged. They understood this language of connection.

They spoke it with store owners and the laundry man, with bank managers and the woman who swept the lane. They remembered names. They spoke of sons, the weather, the city. A child was ill, you expressed concern; a daughter was to be married, you shook a hand. It was not much but it was a shared humanity in a time less lonely and less suspicious.

Maybe you and I, the preoccupied, should try it, too. Or as my father told me: “In very basic terms we need to exercise our humanness from time to time to keep it alive and working.” To ensure that we remember what being human is.

It could be finding out the name of the guard in our office, or home, who waves to us every day and yet whom we refer to only as “security”. It could be conversing with a stranger in a train and seeing where it goes. It could be asking the woman who cleans our desks what her kids do.

If we engage, if we cross a border, we often discover something. I did.

There are two women who serve food every week-day in my canteen. Chinese, middle-aged and with smiles of delightful wattage. For years we said nothing, then one day it just happened. A chit, a chat and now we’re unstoppable.

We jabber on about meatballs, finding one a husband, TV shows, how long they work and my waistline. It’s nothing but it’s everything. It doesn’t mean we’re friends but, you see, we’ll never be strangers.

by Rohit Brijnath

This column was first published in The Straits Times, 14 April 2013.

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