Eye Contact

This is getting bizarre, I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ve locked eyes with a single person today.

The kids in the breakfast joint are twenty-somethings, nice looking, and fit. The kind of people that belong in a running-shoe commercial. Or a beer commercial. Or a fragrance advertisement that takes place on a sailboat.

But something is off. They are taking pictures of their food. Each kid holds a phone above his or her plate.

CLICK! CLICK!

And something else. They aren’t talking to each other. They aren’t even making eye contact.

They stare at their devices, eating with one hand, holding a phone in the other.

After breakfast, my wife and I head across town. I have a busy day. I have a small-town radio interview at ten.

We arrive at the station where I sit in the waiting room. Everyone in the room is young. Nobody is conversing. Lots of phones.

“Nice weather today,” I say to one woman.

She taps on her device and says, “Hmm.”

“They’re calling for rain tomorrow,” I go on.

No answer.

“The building’s on fire,” I say. “We’re all gonna die a horrible death.”

“Hmmm.”

I turn to the guy on my other side. “What’re you in for?”

But he’s listening to music on earphones.

And everyone else is gazing at electronic devices until their faces are slack-jawed and streams of drool fall from the corners of their mouths making puddles on the floor, which the custodian ought to be cleaning up, except he’s playing Fruit Ninja on his phone right now.

I’m invited into the sound-proof booth. We’re on the air. I wear headphones.

The host is not looking at me. Instead, he is looking at a phone. The engineer behind soundproof glass is playing on his phone, too. I could be wearing a taxidermied alligator skull for a hat and nobody would even notice.

This is getting bizarre, I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ve locked eyes with a single person today.

The interview goes bad. The host screws up my name and says, “My guest today is Sam Dietrich, author and columnist. Good morning, Sam, thanks for being with us.”

“Please, call me Sean,” I say.

He laughs. “Why not Sam?”

“Because that’s not my name.”

Long pause.

“Our guest today has been Sam Dietrich.”

For dinner, my wife and I order supper to-go at a sandwich shop. The place is packed. Customers in line are looking downward at phones.

One guy in line is so engrossed with his phone that when it’s his turn to order, it takes him nearly six years to notice the gap between him and the register.

So we wait. And wait. After I celebrate my eighty-sixth birthday someone finally tells the guy to “MOVE!” Eventually, it’s our turn.

“What can I get you, sir?” the sandwich professional asks.

I order a turkey sandwich, my wife orders salad. We pay for our food. On the way out, I pass a large group of middle-aged men at a long table. I count thirteen phones.

Thirteen.

Nobody is talking. One gentleman is listening to music, another is streaming a television show, another appears to be thumb-typing a commentary on “War and Peace.”

Next, we head to our hotel. I’m walking through the lobby, which is overrun with people. And you already know where this is going. Everyone in the lobby is staring at glowing screens.

And I am sufficiently creeped out by all the phones.

When I was fourteen, I took Jenna Stepnowski to see this zombie movie in the theater. I hated horror movies, but Jenna Stepnowski didn’t. Jenna smelled very nice and wore dental braces. The movie scared the ever-loving shoeshine out of me, and I had to leave the theater early.

But I remember the plot, which went like this:

Average people were going about their normal lives. Then, invisible aliens sucked their brains out and transformed them into expressionless zombies who then became unable to form complete sentences and began exhibiting a sudden interest in pop-country music.

And that’s what all these phones remind me about. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against electronic devices, but this world is not the same world I grew up in.

For example: I haven’t made eye contact with a single person in twenty-four hours, unless you count the billboard of Garth Brooks on I-10. And not one person has engaged in conversation with me.

But I remember when people in public places talked. Conversation wasn’t unusual, or weird. It was commonplace, and expected even. And it was our only form of entertainment—not counting “Murder She Wrote.” And it was fun.

We used to chit-chat. We made each other laugh. We made eye contact. We were social. We talked about the box scores in the newspaper. And occasionally we would even make a new friend.

But then, maybe I’m just tired. After all, it’s been a long day. Right now, all I want is to eat my sandwich, lie on my hotel bed, and read a book.

We arrive at our room. I wave the magnetic card across the digital doorknob. The lock unlatches. I put on a complimentary bathrobe. My wife says grace over our to-go supper.

Then, I take seventeen photos of my sandwich and play with my phone until I fall asleep with it in my hands.

All the best,
—Sam

38 comments

  1. Kimber - July 29, 2019 6:59 am

    Sad, but, very true!

    Reply
  2. Meredith Smith - July 29, 2019 9:08 am

    Dear Sam,
    I noticed the same phenomenon at the oral surgeons office while I waited for my husband. Although I own an electronic device, I took heed of the obvious sign that asked those in the waiting room to turn them off. Therefore I brought myself a book to read. Still, I looked around and was confounded to see every person with their noses firmly planted in an electronic device. I counted. Eight. Eight future patients awaiting their room with an electronic device. To my way of thinking, human contact would ease the nervous suffering. But who am I, I don’t know these things. Maybe I’ll Google it and see what I can learn there on this topic.
    Thanks for the heads up, Sam (no pun intended) on this subject. If anything you have reached one reader who will be more mindful to those around her and spend more time in the old fashioned art of conversation. That is, if I can find a willing partner.
    ~ Meredith

    Reply
  3. Meredith Smitb - July 29, 2019 9:11 am

    *doom, not room
    ~Meredith

    Reply
  4. GaryD - July 29, 2019 10:09 am

    ….and over 22 trillion photos are snapped daily but no one has a photo album with a physical photograph in it. Except me. I’m old school by the Grace of God.

    Reply
  5. charliestsimons - July 29, 2019 10:26 am

    I am embarrassed to say but I read your column on an iPhone and am writing this comment on the same iPhone. It is my link to you, Sean, and my link to 2 or 3 people I deeply love. You’ll know me when you see me because our eyes will meet and I will be smiling.

    Take care!
    Charlie

    P.s. I have never photographed my food, but I have pictures of significant children and mothers with children and trees on that same phone.

    Reply
  6. LeAnne Martin - July 29, 2019 11:48 am

    Wow. So good, Sean. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Joe Patterson - July 29, 2019 12:23 pm

    True thanks again

    Reply
  8. Billy Joe Bowling Jr - July 29, 2019 12:31 pm

    I do not want to be a negative Nellie here but it has been my observation that the other side of the coin is…if you press for a conversation with an E-device zombie you are apt to stroke out trying to weed out all the words “like” in one sentence….like, sorry. Nellie

    Reply
  9. Jo Ann - July 29, 2019 12:36 pm

    Agreed, sadly. When we eat together, we have a rule-no phones at the table. At least we talk as a family.

    Reply
  10. MermaidGrammy - July 29, 2019 12:44 pm

    My daughter had to TELL her mother-in-law to put her phone away at Thanksgiving dinner!!! That’s how sad it is. Not a teenager – a 70 year old woman. My grandchildren know much better. So: Didn’t enjoy being a Sam, huh?

    Reply
  11. Sandra - July 29, 2019 12:54 pm

    Sean, you hit the nail on the head. I can’t even set on my front porch and have a conversation with my family. Everyone is is on there phone , playing games or texting. WHAT HAS HAS HAPPENED TO EVERYONE???

    Reply
  12. Jess - July 29, 2019 1:00 pm

    I noticed the way our society was going with phones years ago when my wife and I ate lunch at a local restaurant. A nice looking thirty-something couple came in after we did and sat where I could see them. Each produced a phone and exchanged nary a word the entire time we were in that restaurant. I couldn’t believe it, but as you know that’s what our society has become: phoneoholics!!! This must be evolution happening before my very eyes. In a few hundred more years humans won’t be able to communicate orally….there will be phones that transcribe human’s thoughts onto the phone screen. Cool, huh?

    Reply
  13. Ann - July 29, 2019 1:04 pm

    So true…. sadly… but this is great Monday morning laughter!!! Thank you

    Reply
  14. Anne - July 29, 2019 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the laughs and sad truths. The first time my grandchildren spent the night and announced that they’d brought their devices, I asked them to keep them packed. They are addicting. I prefer that they use their brains and bodies. Take a walk. They like to dig in the dirt. Read a book. Draw. Color. Marbles. Board games. I wonder what long term damage is being done to the brain. Sigh…

    Reply
  15. Judy - July 29, 2019 1:47 pm

    The truth here is sad. My 67 year old husband is probably the worse. He has an app called Friend Finder and he is constantly tracking our kids – even when we are driving. I have told him if he gets pulled over, I won’t defend him. Yesterday was spent with his ear phones plugged into his iPad and he accused me of being unsocial…

    Reply
  16. Teresa Tindle - July 29, 2019 1:53 pm

    Dear Sean, I know exactly what you mean about cell phones. I’m probably the only Granny in the world who doesn’t have one, will never have one. I don’t like them. I prefer to speak in person to someone. Conversation is a long lost art. Children are little zombies, like their parents they re joined at the hip with their cell phones. Never will I have one. But I do like my I-pad.

    Reply
  17. Grace - July 29, 2019 2:13 pm

    I only use my phone to read Sean of the South! Not true. I agree and have witnessed all you wrote. We just have to be like my mother, talk to everyone. Ask an open-ended question about them. After they stare at you as though you are one of those aliens, smile. That really raises eyebrows and that’s close to eye contact. Keep trying. Make it a game. In fact there’s probably an app to count #of eye contacts in a day. 😀

    Reply
  18. Sally Jo - July 29, 2019 3:01 pm

    Amen!!!

    Reply
  19. Ken Dunn - July 29, 2019 3:01 pm

    A couple of thoughts on your article. #1- YOU CAN’T FIX STUPID ! #2 is a question- was there life before cell phones because there certainly isn’t any intelligent life now. What really gets me is the number of people in church who are talking on the phone, getting calls, etc. while the preacher is trying to preach. I’m almost sure it isn’t God calling them on the phone so what’s so important that it can’t wait an hour? I NEVER take my phone into the church. Nothing could possibly happen in an hour that I can’t check on later. Our preacher recently stated that if we spent as much time reading the Bible as we do messing with out cell phones we would wind up much happier. I guess I’m old school and intend to stay that way.

    Reply
  20. Diann - July 29, 2019 3:16 pm

    This post makes me want to cry- mainly because it’s true. My friend and I recently took our grandchildren on a 3 day adventure. And yes they had their screens to play with but outside of the car no screens were allowed- not even at meals. So guess what we did? We conversed and laughed and played and learned a lot about each other- novel concept but it worked for us.
    Keep writing

    Reply
  21. Gene - July 29, 2019 3:27 pm

    Thought of a recent family meal at a popular chain restaurant. We had to ask music be turned down- 3 times- so we could hear each other. Let’s keep pushing for person to person interactions, folks!

    Reply
  22. Jeanne Butler - July 29, 2019 3:27 pm

    It’s all so sad. The world is a lonely place because of all the dang phones. People don’t live their lives anymore. I use my phone to read Sean of the South and WW and to text friends. It’s always with me for emergencies. But that’s it. I’m not addicted to it. I’m 74. Don’t know how much longer I will be here but am not going to spend my last days staring at a dumb phone. Love you Sean

    Reply
  23. JANICE R TAKASHIMA - July 29, 2019 3:45 pm

    I’m old enough to remember when these same kind of people stayed home and listened to the radio, watched television, read books and talked on the telephone. Now they are all outside, walking among us.
    Maybe we could call them virtual hermits.

    Reply
  24. Linda Moon - July 29, 2019 3:53 pm

    There’s a certain human contact which made us all human that I won’t describe, but it goes better with actual eye-contact. All good human relationships require some eye-locking. Call me Al. Call me Sean. The Sam-sayer didn’t call you either of these, but you call me Betty and I’ll keep referring to you as SEAN!

    Reply
  25. Roy Parker - July 29, 2019 3:56 pm

    I have a bobo flip phone, and even it is more than I need. Over a 3 day period last week I had 17 calls, all scams. I send or respond to maybe 2 texts a day. The idea of walking around with my face buried in a screen sickens me. Audiologists and orthopedists will have a field day with the generation of people slumped over and deaf from ear buds jammed in their brains, to say nothing of the people injured or killed simply from not paying attention to their surroundings. I weep for our future.

    Reply
  26. Ginger - July 29, 2019 4:00 pm

    Just talking about that with my son yesterday. He was lamenting the fact that no one laughs at jokes any more. Wisecracks intended to bring a smile are wasted. I have noticed that if you are friendly and try to talk, it is either received with a puzzled look (why are you talking to ME) or ignored. Visiting with classmates, planning a 60th HS reunion this weekend, only one or two phones were brought out of pockets. No one had to answer an “important” call, and we all felt important because we are still here and still friends.

    Reply
  27. Shelton A. - July 29, 2019 5:04 pm

    Sean…my cell phone goes with me when I remember. I don’t stream video, play games, constantly text, or listen to music on my phone. I live with a phone but it is far from my favorite device. I still believe in conversation…although not many people do anymore. My sympathies…

    Reply
  28. Janet Mary Lee - July 29, 2019 6:32 pm

    I follow some pet rescues, church, and animal posts on my phone. I often still forget to take it when in my car in case of emergencies. I so agree with you! I spent lunch with a lady who said she had to see me that day. It was important as she needed advice. She spent the entire time on her phone or often looked at people and their food like she had x-ray vision for long minutes at a time. I was so embarrassed. Never found out her problem, at least not the one she called me about. (smile).She had asked me a question, and I stopped in my response to watch her do all kinds of busy things..She never noticed. I was so glad to get back home to my dog and have a real conversation!! Love you guys!!

    Reply
  29. Dolores - July 29, 2019 6:48 pm

    The last couple of generations have lost the art of conversation. That handheld computer has become their life. I use my cell for phone calls, texts, and pictures, and them only rarely, maybe average 2 or 3 a day. My grandchildren, thank heavens, do not have cell phones to bring with them when we go places, so we DO have family conversations. Don’t know how much longer I’ll be on this earth, that’s up to the good Lord on His time frame, but I do have concerns for my grandchildren. It will be an entirely different world than when I grew up.
    Thanks, Sean, for bringing to light something serious but in a humorous vein!

    Reply
  30. Dolores - July 29, 2019 6:49 pm

    I just noticed – it states the time I submitted my comment was 6:48 pm, my computer says it is 1:48 pm, 5 hours different? Curious.

    Reply
  31. Phyllis Stallings - July 30, 2019 5:00 am

    Dear Sean, You could not have told it any better. I have a granddaughter who is ADHD. I mean a real case of it. But guess what, she now has a phone!!! She stayed with us last week and I was panic about what to do with her for a week. Surprisingly she was not a problem except for chronic strowing . You are so right! Life is not the same and our young people have no social skills.

    Reply
  32. Sandi. - July 30, 2019 8:39 am

    Thank you for bringing up the topic of cell phone addiction, Sean. It is an epidemic of humongous proportions almost everywhere you look now days. How truly sad that many people are so involved in using their cell phones that they rarely converse eye-to-eye or actually listen anymore to what the other person is saying.

    Reply
  33. Melissa - July 30, 2019 11:16 am

    LOL on the cell phone I am a pastor down in a little town at the tip of Texas and it reminds me of how I ended a sermon on gossip.

    Reply
  34. Jill - July 30, 2019 12:03 pm

    I invited a friend over for sunday supper. As I busied myself in the kitchen, not once did my friend offer to help or engage in conversation. I peered into the dining room where he sat engrossed on his phone. Society has lost it’s most valuable interactions with another.

    Reply
  35. Lizzie - July 30, 2019 9:28 pm

    When I moved here four years ago, I often sat on my covered patio and spoke to neighbors walking their dogs. Rain or shine, they kept passing. In the rain, many dogs even wore fancy raincoats. That made me laugh.
    It was easy to get to know those who walked past six or seven times a day on the same route. I knew the names of most of the dogs and lots of their people, who, I guess, were destined for the present behaviors. Now the dogs lead the people, stop in front of my patio to pee, and then proceed ahead, leading the owners aggressively toward the dog park.. In fact, the dogs actually use their leashes to pull the people, who don’t even notice that its happening because they are on their phones, talking, never raising their eyes, just moving along the route methodically, talking loud enough to hear, their eyes on the sidewalk. One of them did stop to lament that the brains of today’s children are changing because of constant use of electronic devices. I didn’t know her, but I knew the dog Ranger. “A very different version of the human mind is emerging for future generations,” she said sadly before asking if she could snap a selfie with me and Ranger and taking the picture at the same time. As her phone rang, she handed me her card and moved on without saying another word, intent on the incoming message. The card said “Dogsitting Debbie” with her cell number.

    Reply
  36. Lee Ann Hawkins - July 31, 2019 2:15 pm

    Right on my favorite columnist and novelist! This gets the blue, red AND yellow ribbon for hitting the
    nail on the head. I can’t believe I am sending you a thank you note via email when I sound be looking you in the eye! Muzzie

    Reply
  37. lovemonteelou - July 31, 2019 3:42 pm

    It’s like pulling teeth to get a , “Good mawnin'” out of someone when I’m on my morning walk. I love to startle those walking by who are staring at their phone. Just about jump out of their skin. It’s become a fun game on my walks.It’s not so funny though, just a sad state of affairs.

    Reply
  38. throughmyeyesusa - August 2, 2019 8:32 pm

    A lot of these folks are communicating with each other while they eat, Sean. They text across the table!

    What nobody is mentioning is how many of these people don’t use the disabling feature on their phones in the car and are TEXTING WHILE DRIVING! Beyond the unfortunate impact on our society’s lack of eye contact, laughter and friendly interaction, the upsurge in unnecessary traffic accidents, crippling injuries, even fatalities is tragic.

    Reply

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