The other day, I was sitting in the Toast café in Takashimaya, waiting for my flatmate, Saffy. She had just SMS’d that she was running ten minutes late.
“U r trying on shoes, aren’t u?” I texted back.
My phone pinged. “OMG! How did u noe? Can u see me?”
I settled back to read a back issue of 8DAYS. Slowly, I felt a pressure build up to my right, an unsettling cone of silence that I’d noticed when I first sat down.
Without lifting my head from a story about Joanne Peh, I let my eyes swivel to the right.
Four young twenty-somethings dressed rather stylishly sat amidst a clatter of plates with half eaten cake, empty glasses and half empty cups of tea. They looked like they were good friends who had met up for a late afternoon catch up and gossip. I noted their clean skins and, on one of them, snappy spectacles. I envied them their youth.
Finally, I just put down my magazine and stopped pretending that I wasn’t looking at them. Short of me taking off all my clothes, they probably wouldn’t even have noticed that I was now openly ogling them.
Here’s the thing: they weren’t speaking at all. Each person at that table had his or her head down focused on an iPhone, iPad, iPod or a laptop. Each tapping away, scribbling on a notebook, swiping a screen, busy communicating with what I imagined was everyone in the world except the other three people at the table.
For long minutes, they didn’t say a word to each other. Occasionally, one person would mumble something and the other three would grunt. No one lifted their heads.
When Saffy finally arrived with Sharyn in tow, both grunting under the load of several On Pedder bags, I hissed at them that we needed to move tables.
Saffy looked perplexed. “But we just got here! Aren’t we having coffee and cake? I love their peanut butter cupcakes!”
“We are, but just not at this table,” I whispered while hustling her and Sharyn to another table at the other end of the café, explaining on the way.
After she’d craned her neck around the corner of a pillar to have a good look, Saffy said this was probably why there are so many single people in Singapore.
“They just don’t know how to talk.”
Leave it to Sharyn to pipe up, “Aiyah, after you marry long long time, hor, you also don’t talk, what!”
“Well, I think it’s just plain creepy,” I said firmly. “How do four people just sit at a table and not say a single thing to each other?”
“Maybe dey are in-laws?” Sharyn suggested, still clinging stubbornly to her original theory of post-marriage dynamics.
“Or maybe they are talking to one another? Maybe…” Saffy said, her bosom flexing with doubt, “maybe, they’re instant messaging one another!”
I hesitated. “You think?”
Three heads leaned over the pillar to have another look at the silent quartet. After a while, the heads retracted and Saffy said it was easily one of the strangest thing she’d ever seen.
“I mean, it’s not like they’re studying or anything. Two of them are on phones, and one of them has ear-phones! Oh God, it’s just driving me insane!”
Later, Amanda said it was very weird that the three of us had spent an hour obsessing about four complete strangers.
“Yes, but the point is, we were communicating!” Saffy pointed out. “I have so much to say all the time, I just can’t comprehend how you could spend all that time in the presence of three other people and not say a word! I mean, Sharyn and I spent the whole afternoon together, we talked the entire time and we still had plenty to say to each other on our handphones after we’d gone our separate ways!”
Which started this whole topic about the lost art of the conversation. Here’s the thing: When you mainly talk to your friends on Facebook, SMSs, and instant messaging, maybe we’re producing a generation that is slowly losing its ability to vocalize an opinion about anything, except in grunts.
As Saffy observed, “It’s like we’re all in a porn movie!”
Amanda said that one day, the whole world will be reduced to sign-language. “And we won’t be able to lift our heads anymore because we’re always looking down at our screen!” She also thought this is probably why whenever she asks shop-girls a question, they panic. “They get this weird, frightened look and their eyes swivel sideways.”
“Maybe it would help if you SMS’d them,” Saffy suggested.