Every three weeks or so, I take a 15-minute walk down Franklin Street and head toward Chapel Hill Barber Shop. What I’ve always looked forward to most about my visit is the wait.
Each visit I expect to wait at least 30 minutes with other clients, composed mainly of other college students and older Chapel Hillians. There are no TVs, just a humble stereo system and posters of UNC basketball legends. This atmosphere usually encourages engaging conversations among the unacquainted clients, as well as the barbers, consisting of personal anecdotes, sports talk, political debates and local news. Over the past few years, however, the barbershop has started to lose its energy derived from these conversations.
Traditionally, when you found yourself next to a stranger in a familiar communal place such as a coffee shop, park, or barbershop, you would make small talk. More often than not, if you and the stranger remained in the same place for long enough, this small talk would develop into a meaningful conversation.
This tradition, unfortunately, is one unknown to most people today. We live in a world dominated by the smartphone. About 64 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone. When we find ourselves in a public place with strangers, we quickly resort to our phones or tablets for diversion and comfort. When we find ourselves between two people standing in line for coffee, we will habitually pull out our smartphone and pretend to be doing something of importance rather than risk the possibility of another customer striking a conversation with us. If waiting for an elevator, we disregard the people around us and retreat to the soft blue light of our devices. Scenes like this are reenacted in countless places of interaction every minute.
The tragedy is that meaningful conversation is being silenced. Conversation is one of the most powerful tools in society. Talking to people within our community whom we do not know improves the health of the community. When we understand one another’s shared concerns and interests, we are able to strengthen our community and shape it accordingly. Having a strong community and understanding its collective needs provides us with the power to ensure that policy is truly driven by the people as opposed to third-party interests. Moreover, the best -informed opinions stem from conversation with people outside of our friend groups, not from the mouth of the loudest politician or most radical media outlet.
Smartphones unquestionably have their benefits – they keep us up-to-date with current events, they keep us in touch with people whom we do not see often, they keep us organized. Smartphones make our lives easier. What we need to ask ourselves, however, is what are we sacrificing when we open our phones in places of interaction and become entranced by the backlight of our screens?
Williams is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill.