Ars Loquitur, Ars Ambulandi

There's an art to walking and to talking; both are compromised by iPhones


Pop Culture

Etiquette as an expectation and as part of upbringing was once taken for granted. For a German, to say somebody lacks Kinderstube is an insult: it means that person is wanting in upbringing. He is boorish.

Kinderstube was taken for granted because people rightly assumed that living with others in society is not just nice but a legitimate social expectation. “It’s not just all about you.”

Today that expectation collides with no small number of people with large egos. It manifests itself, for example, in the “righteous” virtue-signaler intent on forcing you to witness his “social justice” cause, even if he stands in the middle of your bridge, road, cafeteria, and/or museum. Your need to be somewhere or do something cannot trump the “urgency” of his message.

Well, I’m not going to get into the problem of the “professional protestor” or what to do with him. My peeve today is a bit less drastic, though likely more commonplace. It’s the person with an iPhone or mobile. Specifically, the person with an iPhone or mobile phone that pretends to be “walking” with it.

This evening, as I tried to make it from one platform to another to transfer subway lines, I got caught behind two people. The first young woman simply could not speed up because her eyes were glued to the screen in her hand rather than the open platform space in front of her, though she was generally advancing “with all deliberate speed” in some forward direction. Managing to skirt her, I wound up behind the next young person with a metallic growth attached to his hand. The difference was that at least the first person feigned some appearance of being ambulatory. The second suddenly was struck by something he saw and, therefore, stopped in his tracks. Not having expected him to do that, so did I, resulting in a collision.

Once upon a time, it was generally assumed that when walking in a crowd, one keeps moving, one maintains pace. That means paying attention to those around you so that everyone gets where they have to be. But that norm seems to be replaced by paying attention to whatever interests you at this moment, to having your mind somewhere else and not necessarily connected to what your body is doing. If that’s a problem for others, it’s their problem.

No, it isn’t.

Once upon a time, “pay attention to what you’re doing” was about as elementary a principle as “there are boys and there are girls” and “2 + 2 = 4.” It’s amazing we now have to speak about, even insist, on them. Apparently, we do.

Of course, the idea that many people need a telephone-ectomy may be generational. The young have simply grown up with such phones and think it “normal” that their eyes should be focused on them rather than where they are going. Why would one look at where one is going rather than at one’s screen? Just as Americans give names to different age cohorts (e.g., “Baby Boomers,” “Gen Z,” “Gen X”) so, too, a similar phenomenon occurred in Taiwan. The generation growing up in Taiwan in the 2010s were the 下头族 (xia tou zu) — the “under-the head generation” or “bent-over head generation.” Their heads were constantly bent over their devices.

I’ve seen that already with my own kids: While I am busy noting the glorious scenery just outside the car window, their eyes are fixed on a different window. What is really absurd is when you tell somebody “look at that!” and, instead of looking, they photograph it. Are you going to look at it later? And, if image not only substitutes for but supplants the “real thing,” are we surprised realistic thinking is fading and metaphysics is a lost science?

But if the younger generation just wants to watch, an older generation — especially in cities like Washington and New York — are attached to their phones for a different reason: their messages and identities. They can’t be out of contact for a second. The world will pivot off its axis if they are not aware of the latest email, text, or tweet. Your walking cannot take precedence over my need to know now.

It was DeGaulle who made the observation that cemeteries are full of indispensable people. (There’s more than one reason why mortality has become invisible in our day). Sorry, friend, but while I hate to burst your bubble, you’re just not that “mission critical.” It may be hard to believe but — please, do struggle with the concept — the world most likely will continue rotating should you manage to get off your phone for the time it takes you to connect from train A to train B. Try it!

So, yes, there’s an art to walking, ars ambulandi. But there is also an art to talking. And I fear that, too, is being compromised.

There is frankly nothing ruder than sitting at a table or a meal with someone who “talks” to you while scrolling his screen or checking his email. Yes, I’ve heard of “multitasking,” but I am not simply just “another job” for you and, if I am, well, find somebody else. If someone has taken the time to sit with you, sit with them. They did not send you a text. They did not “Teams” you. They did not set up a “video call.” They’re right in front of you, flesh and blood. Don’t make that less important than pixels dancing in front of your head. In other words, “pay attention to people!”

Kinderstube exists for a reason. It is not to follow some rules or conventions but, ultimately, to value the other person by putting that person before yourself and dealing with him, within the confines of a particular situation or context, with personal respect. Each person is made in the image and likeness of God, not a picture whose image is reconstituted from 000s, 1111s, and pixels. And persons in “synchronous mode” — who listen and talk back to you in person — are not just novel. You might even find they capture your attention better than your phone.

They say that when he was Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla would set aside an hour every day for anybody who wanted to come and talk to him. They also say that anybody who did this went away feeling that while you were there, you were the only person who mattered. He made you, not him, indispensable. There might be something to learn here for the “under-the-head generation.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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