Bonnie Henry: Making eye contact a lost art - let alone actual conversation

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: Making eye contact a lost art - let alone actual conversationBonnie Henry Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Just about every day I give thanks that I am no longer the mother of teenagers.

Those of whom I speak were safely grown and gone before rap music, before wide-enough-to-wade-in baggy pants, and long before cellphones and texting.

I'll take screaming at my kids to turn down Mötley Crüe any day over the problem today's parents face: having to wait until their progeny's thumbs are poised midair over their cellphones before even thinking of engaging in face-to-face conversation.

Granted, even before cellphones it was often a battle - one my own parents successfully waged with just one salvo: "Look at me, young lady, when I'm talking to you."

Good luck with that in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Today's teens and twentysomethings barely look up from their phones long enough to shower, let alone acknowledge an actual human being standing next to them.

Yes, of course adults old enough to know better do the same thing, witness those amusing YouTube vignettes of folks stumbling into fountains, walls, and each other while texting.

Still, most of us of a certain age continue to bear witness to the lessons of an earlier time that reliably kick in when necessary. Lessons that taught us how to maintain eye contact while conducting a conversation - minus any sort of electronic device.

That is why on my walks I can count on a steady stream of "Good mornings," and smiles whenever I encounter someone over the age of, say, 40.

Young people? Not so much. Even if they're not using a cellphone, their eyes invariably maintain a steady gaze far away from mine. In short, they're uncomfortable with even the skimpiest of conversations.

Ah, well. Ignoring a stranger on a walk is one thing. Blowing it in a business setting is another. Hence MIT's "charm school," which teaches the brightest of the bright at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the manners and social skills they need to get and keep a job.

MIT is not alone. According to The Hechinger Report, other colleges are also teaching everything from proper business dress to the "art of small talk" - a skill that expands way past one's thumbs. Or as Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J. put it: "This is a generation with an average of 241 social media 'friends,' but they have trouble communicating in person."

If only Junior Assembly and its ilk at the time were still around.

While some who went through it still speak of it with a shudder, Tucson's Junior Assembly successfully taught generations of boys and girls from the late 1930s to the mid-1980s how to dress, dance and engage in proper etiquette.

"You dressed like you were going to Sunday School," Jim Turner, who attended from grades six through nine in the early 1960s, told me a few years back.

Deportment lessons came in "five-minute blasts," followed by punch and cookies served by the boys, remembered Ruth Corbett Cross, whose Junior Assembly training went back to the late 1930s.

A generation later, her daughter, Lynn Harris, would follow in her footsteps - tripping lightly through the waltz, fox trot and cha-cha-cha.

Sigh. Punch and cookies? Learning the waltz? Impossible to imagine in today's world. One in which the bar is set to just above a mumble, and - if you're lucky - maybe a little eye contact.

Bonnie Henry's column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at bonniehenryaz@gmail.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate
Get weekly ads via e-mail

Deals, offers & events

View more...