DL Says

Stop using the phone as an excuse and start talking

Where have all the lively conversations gone? Relatives, from teens to the elderly, keep whipping out their smartphones this festive season

The Chinese New Year long weekend is over. And the one thing that stuck out from my many tiring house visits - besides the cute-but-gross image of my toddler nephew wiping his mouth on my sister's skirt - is this: My relatives, from a 15-year-old teenager to my 55-year-old uncle, were regularly whipping out their smartphones. Even in the middle of conversations.

And yes, I caught myself doing the same too.

We have all been asked, at some point, awkward questions such as "When are you getting a girlfriend?", "When are you getting married?", "When are you giving birth?" or "When are you giving birth to a second one?" by relatives you meet once a year during Chinese New Year.

I remember responding to such questions with awkward smiles and mumbled replies in the past.

These days, though, I might deflect and then extricate myself with a "There is a Rayquaza raid!" Pokemon Go excuse.

I remember in my primary school days, CNY house visits involved lots of chatting to catch up on what was going on in the family and TV watching.

These days, when conversation topics run stale, we whip out our smartphones, check our Facebook updates and smile at our friends' CNY photos. No one seems to be watching TV.

Of course, there are always lively conversations, the odd Chinese chess match and the usual mahjong sessions in my family. But often, I notice someone swiping away at his smartphone from the sofa or at the corner of the room.

At times, the topic is the smartphone itself. Being the only one using the Apple iPhone X among my relatives, I got plenty of questions about my new gizmo. So this CNY, I felt like an Apple Store employee trying to explain the workings of Face ID and how it is different from the competition.

However, I think the smartphone is an easy scapegoat for the lack of face-to-face conversation among friends and families these days.

True, the device might have made it easier for all of us to be distracted and withdrawn from face-to-face communication. But I think Singaporeans in general do not like to talk much. If you are in the United States, conversation in a hotel lift ride to the 12th storey with a stranger can range from Super Bowl to Trump. In Singapore, you stare at your own shoes (or toes if you wear slippers) and can hear a pin drop during an HDB lift ride up 25 storeys, even if you are riding it with your neighbours who live on the same floor.

The ubiquitous smartphone is an easy go-to in such a situation. We swipe on the smartphone even if there is no cellular signal in the lift - just to show that we are doing something, even when we are actually doing nothing.

Maybe it is time to keep the smartphone in the pocket, smile and try to start a conversation.

But first, let me check that incoming WhatsApp message.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2018, with the headline 'Stop using the phone as an excuse and start talking'. Print Edition | Subscribe