What Was That You Said?

Samantha Kemp-Jackson

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“What was that you said?”

How many times have you had to repeat yourself to someone because they didn’t hear what you said the first time? The reason? They were oblivious to your words because they had their earphones in.

Conversely, how many times have you had a one-sided conversation with this same person, thinking they heard you, then discovering that they had their headphones on the whole time that you were talking?

Probably many times, right? You’re not alone, sadly.

The world has changed because of earphones. People are missing important conversations, comments and more because of their continual need to be plugged in. Case in point — you say something to someone within earshot and they ignore you, or they realize you said something and say “what did you say? Sorry — I had my earphones on.” You then realize, feeling foolish, that you had been have been conducting a monologue, not a dialogue without realizing it. The person before you had no knowledge of your presence as they were otherwise occupied.

Such is the case in our digitally-wired world. We’re plugged in at all times, much to the detriment of others — and ourselves. The ease, ability and in some cases, perceived requirement to be continually entertained is borne out on streets, parks, cars and anywhere else you can find people. Our smartphones and similar devices have made the need to pay attention to others almost obsolete. We can now effectively block out the rest of the auditory world, retreating to our solitary cocoon of our bespoken playlists.

Regardless of where they are — home, work or otherwise — they’re plugged in. Why shouldn’t they be, you may ask. After all, we are living in a digital world. And the possibilities are endless.

We can now effectively block out the rest of the auditory world, retreating to our solitary cocoon of our bespoken playlists.

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We weren’t always able to disconnect from the outside world

Yet this wasn’t always the case. There was a time where being “connected” meant something completely different. Different and low tech, to be specific. There was a “landline,” otherwise known as a telephone, by which connection occurred. There was also this very strange thing called “snail mail” that preceded the Internet, and which allowed far-flung friends and relatives to connect, slowly. Patience was a virtue and a necessity. There was no other choice.

And this reality impacted every aspect of our lives — including the ability to listen — really listen. Both literally and figuratively, our abilities to listen to music, the radio (a precursor and standalone choice to the multitude of streaming options today) and each other took a lot more work and planning.“In previous times, our abilities to listen to music, the radio and each other took a lot more work and planningPerhaps it was getting the latest album at the record store, then scurrying home to put it on the turntable. Or maybe it was a cassette tape, or an even older relic of bygone times, an eight-track tape. Regardless of what it was, it wasn’t portable, and plugging in meant something different altogether. With the headphones of old, there was no mistaking that one was plugged in. They were big, bulky and oh, so obvious. Nothing like the minuscule and barely-perceptible ear buds or similar audio accessories that are so common today. And Bluetooth? Who could have imagined?

You’d never mistake someone for being otherwise engaged, back then. Today — well, we’re used to people walking down the street, seemingly talking to themselves, or singing songs, oblivious to the outside world. It’s those imperceptible ear buds and earphones that are so common now.

And ironically, this ability to be constantly connected has isolated us.

And ironically, this ability to be constantly connected has isolated us. In our own worlds we reside, headphones in place, listening to virtual voices or music that takes us to another world. We’re simultaneously connected and disconnected. How very strange. And sad.

All this to say that I’m not blaming my family members for their perceived slights, as I, too, have been guilty of being engrossed in another world via my headphones. A lover of podcasts and music of my youth, I too am often found entranced by the sounds offered by my earphones. I’d say that many of the conversations that I have in my home these days is preceded by an “Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you. What did you say?” And I know I’m not alone in this 21st century problem.

The question is, really — will it ever change? Will we ever go back to the way things were, when distractions came through different and more easily-identifiable means?

I don’t know the answer, though I suspect that the genie’s out of the bottle. How do we collectively step back from what has become almost an extension of our physical beings? Our devices are part of us, if we want to admit it or not. Don’t believe me? Leave your smartphone or tablet behind for a day and let me know how you’re feeling at the end of it.

It’s really too bad that we’ve become so attached to our devices that the “real” world has become secondary to our virtual pursuits. But who can blame us? It’s a vast, unending, infinite world out there in the ether. And to experience it, you’ve got to plug in.

I repeat.

You’ve got to plug in, agree?

What was that again?

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I write about Lifestyle content with a focus on Parenting, Society and Trends. I also talk about how things have changed on my podcast, "Parenting Then and Now."

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