06 September 2014

Everybody's E-Talkin'

A song that I liked the first time I heard it, back in college, accompanying the opening credits of Midnight Cowboy, started out with "Everybody's talkin' at me, I don't hear a word they're sayin' . . ." Those lyrics are as appropriate now as they were then; only the circumstances are different. These days we seem to do most of our talking via e-mails, smartphones, Facebook notes, Instant Messaging, etc., and although I take part in all that as much as anyone else, I'm not sure it's always a good thing. Sometimes, like Harry Nilsson, I'm not sure I hear a word they're sayin'.

There is, of course, a reason for all those news reports about people wandering in front of cars or falling into manholes while looking down at their phones. And it's not just because folks who do that are as dumb as the trees and walls they're running into. They are simply addicted to being in nonstop touch with other people, or to being constantly entertained by some online program or service. God forbid they should be forced to nod a greeting to those they pass on the street, or to think about something on their own.

Hold the phone

How often have you been in meetings, or at lunch, or even at family gatherings, and realized that some of the people around you have never once made eye contact wth you or anybody else there? Instead they're texting or surfing or staring in slack-jawed catatonia at their phones or tablets. Madonna could climb onto the table wearing nothing but cowboy boots and an Easter bonnet and play "Over the Rainbow" on a ukulele, and they'd never notice.

Even worse--and I realize this is nothing new--is when strangers in crowded restaurants or stores or waiting roooms carry on loud phone converstions as if others aren't within an arm's length and hearing every word. I truly hate that. I was in Kroger last week and watched the lady ahead of me check out a couple hundred bucks' worth of groceries, pay the cashier, and leave the store without once pausing her full-volume conversation or taking her phone from her ear or even looking at anyone. When I moved up to get my own items checked out, the cashier just gave me a tired look and tipped her head in the direction of the departing woman and rolled her eyes. I nodded my agreement. I'm convinced that the main reason cell phones don't have cords is so bystanders can't use them to strangle the callers.

Once again, I am not guiltless here. I try not to be rude, but I do love my gadgets, and I admit that no matter where I am, I can't resist occasionally pulling out my iPhone to check e-mail or the weather radar or the Dow Jones. I do, however, try to maintain at least some level of dignity in my life: I don't pump my arms back and forth like an idiot when I speed-walk in the neighborhood, I don't wear too-short neckties, I don't confuse "it's" with "its," and I don't use my cell phone to discuss my sore back or my crabgrass problem or my cousin's gambling debts while I'm in a crowd of people.

E-friends and neighbors

I confess I have strayed a bit from the topic. Phone calls, unless you're FaceTiming or Skyping or video-conferencing, are not e-talking. But e-mail and Facebook and texting are, and I'm not sure I could live without them. As for Facebook, I don't post a lot there, and I generally ignore others' posts about what they had for breakfast today or what TV show they watched last night (I don't care about that any more than they would care about hearing that from me), but I do use Facebook to announce upcoming classes or booksignings, and I like using it to stay aware of what other writers are doing and to keep in touch with otherwise inaccessible friends and classmates. And e-mail? I love it. As a writer, I think e-submissions and e-correspondence with editors/publishers makes life less difficult in a multitude of ways. I also use e-mail and text messages to stay in touch with our three children, and I fell in love with Skype and FaceTime long ago, for the same reason.

As for e-friends, I have quite a few I've never even met in real life, and some of them I feel I know pretty
well. Many include some of my colleagues at SleuthSayers and at the now-retired Criminal Brief mystery blog. When I have had a chance to eventually meet and visit with people I'd been in e-touch with--Leigh Lundin, Herschel Cozine, Liz Zelvin, Linda Landrigan, Steve Steinbock, Melodie Johnson-Howe, Barb Goffman, James Lincoln Warren, Bill Crider, Andrew Gulli, BJ Bourg, Janet Hutchings, Angela Zeman, Jim Doherty, Jeff Baker, and others--I'm usually surprised (and relieved) to find that in person they are exactly what I had expected. And I'm always amazed at how generous e-friends can be, with advice, critiques, blurbs, recommendations, etc.

OMG--Who R U?

One thing that does bother me (more than it probably should) is that statistics confirm that the average person now has far more e-friends than "actual" friends, and spends far more of his/her time in e-contact than in face-to-face relationships. The problem there is that I find myself wondering whether younger people are learning the interpersonal social skills that they'll need later in life. (Observe the teenagers at your next family reunion; I predict that they'll spend most of that time alone and fiddling with their phones.) But, hell, what do I know? Maybe what they'll do later in life won't require interpersonal social skills.

One thing that doesn't bother me a lot (and it probably should) is the security risk of e-friendships. Unless your new e-acquaintance is Tiffani from Bora Bora and she says it's like totally awesome to meet such an amazing guy, I think you can safely assume that most e-friends are legitimate and are who they say they are. Yes, there's always the chance that 25-year-old schoolteacher Mary Jane Tucker might turn out to be 55-year-old Darth Voldemort, currently serving eight to ten for grand larceny--but the truth is, if you're openly looking for relationships, there'll always be some risks anyway, even if the encounters are face-to-face.


What are your thoughts, about all this? Are any of you fellow e-mail devotees? (If you're writers, I suspect that you are, almost by necessity.) Do your e-friends outnumber your real-life friends? How much time do you figure you spend on your smartphone? How much would be too much? Do you share my concerns about the lessening of face-to-face social interaction? Do you check Facebook daily and use it for messaging? Do you use Twitter? (I've not yet taken that plunge.) Have you ever blundered into a tree or a lamppost while you were texting? (I've come close, but no cigar.) And my final question:

Do you always, no matter what, read the SleuthSayers blog?

This e-friend is hoping you do.


  1. John, somehow you always seem to say something that needs to be said and that's rare these days. "Everybody's talking at me, I don't hear a word they're saying" is not only one of those songs that stayed in mind from the first time I heard it, it's a song I still frequently sing to myself.

    My sons and grandson are amazed when I tell them that when I was a child, relatives and friends visited each other by going to other people's homes, frequently for Sunday dinner. They text. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would prefer to text instead of actually talking to another person.

    I'm nearing the end of a self-imposed one-year of life without a cell phone. It hasn't been bad at all, and it's certainly freed up my mind during driving time which is when and where I work out plots, write songs, and sing other folks' songs to myself.

    To answer some of your questions: I love e-mail because there are communications that I need to see in writing instead of hearing over a phone. (Yes, I did keep land lines which are in almost every room of my house.) The only problem with that is when I really need to make a call away from home, there are no pay phones.

    I look at Facebook most days, but once a day is enough. I read SleuthSayers almost every day with my first cup of coffee unless I'm sick. When ill, I don't want to get anywhere near a computer. Sometimes I go back and try to catch up, but not always.

    Like you, I love the electronic submission of manuscripts. My agent asked for three full print copies of the first Callie when he pitched it. When Berkley took it, we mailed editing copies and proofing galleys back and forth. From the second book on, all I've had to do is press "send." To sum this up, I love electronic communication, but being an eccentric old lady, I like it on my own terms, and don't dare play on your phone at my dinner table!

  2. Thanks, Fran, for your kind words and for your answers to my crazy questions. I admire and applaud your separation of self and cell phone--a whole year?!?--but I confess that I couldn't do it. When a phone rings in a crowd of folks, I'm among the first to reach into my pocket.

    The only things that really, really bother me are the rudeness of public phone conversations and the burying of one's head in one's phone at--as you said--the dinner table.

  3. John, I love e-mail (except for spam and political stuff); I prefer it to Facebook (although I check Facebook once a day, and I'm trying to cut that down), because Facebook any more seems to be mostly yelling in an echo chamber, not much actual conversation and mostly photos and rants; I have lots of e-friends, and I'm grateful for that. I have a very old cell phone, which is adequate, and it drives me NUTS when someone goes through the entire grocery store talking on their cell phone and never once acknowledges anyone else.

  4. Eve, I think email is one of the essentials of life these days, especially if you're a writer. As for cell phones, I once heard one of my friends greet another with "Hey, what's new with you?" The second person replied, "Yesterday I saw, with my own eyes, a lady driving an SUV who wasn't on her cell phone." A rare occurrence indeed.

  5. John,
    As usual your blog is on the money. I share your disdain for rude people who have phones growing out of their ears and would be lost without them.
    Believe it or not I do not have a cell phone, (never did). Yes, it can be a problem now that pay phones are only found in museums.

    A newspaper article I read the other day told of a man who went into a fast food restaurant asking for directions. He showed the address which was jotted down on a piece of paper. The teenage girl shrugged and said, "I can't read cursive". This, while slightly off the subject, is (or should be) of concern about the state of today's youth. Every bit as intelligent, I would say, as any of us. But technology is taking a toll.

    E-mail, Sleuthsayers, SMFS, occasionally Facebook are my favorites. And, of course, electronic submissions.

    Thanks for another interesting blog

  6. Herschel, I'm glad you mentioned the SMFS forum. For those of you who might not know about it, it's the Short Mystery Fiction Society forum, in Yahoo Groups. A good way to keep up with fellow writers of mystery shorts--like FB, it's a site I try to check once a day or so. SMFS is a small and (except for me and Herschel and Rob Lopresti) elite group.

    Funny story, about the cursive-illiterate girl in the restaurant. I'll have to remember that one.

  7. I'm back again. Just have to comment on the cursive writing. Aeden is in the ninth grade and learned cursive right before it ceased to be a taught subject in SC schools.
    Herschel's story about the girl reminded me of when computers became prevalent in restaurants and stores. It wasn't long before we began encountering young cashiers who couldn't make change without the computer telling them how much.

  8. Great post.

    I don’t always comment, but I always read the SleuthSayers blog posts.

    I don’t have a smartphone. I have cell phone and it may be smart, but I wouldn’t know because I only carry it for emergency. My greatest fear of cellphone users is drivers holding a cellphone to their ear while making a turn.

  9. Fran, I've heard the same thing, about cashiers not being able to make change. You always hope that isn't true, but I'm sure it is.

    Louis, I gotta tell you, I had my doubts too at first, but smartphones are fantastic. I use mine as a flashlight, a texting device, a level, a clock, a weather watcher, a camera, an Internet surfboard, a voice recorder, an alarm clock, an email checker, a timer, a GPS device, a notepad, a calendar, and a video recorder. Now and then, if required, I even use it make phone calls.

  10. Good points John, Fran and Eve. I too love technology - both digital and analog (wasn't Gutenberg press an advance in technology?) - but without direct human interaction, how can we pick up the rhythms, the nuances of dialogue for our stories if we limit our contact to online?

    Everything has its place - we wouldn't drive our car to visit our next door neighbor nor use a spraycan for decorating small figurines, would we?

    Email, SMS, social media is good for quick communications, but unless we are writing a story where the characters only communicate this way, we won't know their 'natural' voices, inflections and accents by that alone.

    To use technology to make tasks quicker or easier is fantastic and should be utilized. But to miss seeing everyday occurrences with my own eyes - the flight of birds, how someone raises an eyebrow or gives a smirk, how bricks settle differently on a sidewalk, someone who wears different colored socks - would be a dagger in the heart of that precious gift of our senses.

    To borrow very liberally from John Donne, 'No writer is an island, entire of oneself...Every one's dialogue and being enhances me, because I am involved in humankind.'

  11. Well said, Bradley. Unless we're writing about people who never interact face-to-face, how can we, if WE don't, be successful in creating believable characters? Their dialogue would look and sound--Heaven forbid--like text messages.

  12. Right on the money, John! I love e-mail and electronic submissions. I have a cell phone, but secretly hope there is a special place in hell for those that walk around "sharing the facts of their life like small change on strangers" (Tom Waits). It's not technology I blame so much as the current phenomenon of "Hey, everyone look at me!!" that has become so much a part of our culture.

    And, of course, I read SleuthSayers everyday. What right-minded person doesn't?

  13. I have two BFFs, one I've known 53 years and the other 40 years, and I have quite a few internet friends, some of whom I've known 10 or 15 years. I don't socialize very much otherwise.

    I love email, because it creates a record of both sides of the conversation. I have a small flip phone which isn't terribly smart, but it only costs me $20 every three months & I never have to look for pay phones. The keys are much too small to be comfortable for texting.

    Am I the only one here who doesn't do Facebook? An ex-boyfriend already cyberstalked me & I have a restraining order against him. My husband is on Facebook & I look over his shoulder now & then. His sister, who is 40, used to visit, call & email but nowadays only communicates through Facebook.

  14. David, I probably check email a hundred times a day, and my mother, who's 88, uses a cell phone. Technology might be frustrating sometimes, but it's a wonderful thing.

    Liz, I find that I do enjoy Facebook. For one thing, it has enabled to find (and be found by) longlost friends that without FB would still be lost. And when someone says they're too old for FB, I tell them about the ninety-year old lady who bought one of my books at a signing and then, late that same night, sent me a Facebook friend request.

  15. Sorry, I seem to be leaving words out of some of my posts today. I meant, it has enabled ME to find . . .

  16. Making change without using a computer is a lost art, or skill as the case may be. And it sometimes is a problem when a computer is used. I once tried to give the cashier a penny when my change was 14 cents. I thought it would be an easy thing for her to do. She had no idea what to do with it. I ended up with a dime and five pennies, one of which was mine. Sad

  17. You're right, Herschel--that would be funny if it weren't so sad. I seem to have a problem almost every time I try to do that. The other day my bill at Walmart's was $ 19.78, so I helpfully gave the cashier a twenty and three pennies. After receiving a blank stare, I solved this math dilemma by putting the three pennies back in my pocket and taking my 22 cents in change.

  18. I remember grumbling when my first book publisher told me I had to get active on Facebook and Twitter. Now, I wonder what I do without the clever and witty friends I have met online!
    For one thing, I wouldn't be a blogger with a regular gig on SleuthSayers :)

  19. Melodie, we're glad (and lucky) that you are!

    I suppose I should take the Twitter plunge. I probably need to talk with you about that . . .

  20. Sometimes I am riding a bike on a trail or whatever which is supposed to be shared with pedestrians and I find myself headed toward someone who is walking with head down in a phone or other device. When I get a few feet from her/him I stop the bike and wait. So far no one has walked straight into me but a few have come close.

  21. Rob, the sad thing is, if you collide with one of those folks, you'd probably be the one at fault.

  22. My Brother and I have lamented that we don't call each other anymore, we text and Facebook each other! But the 'net is amazing---a friend of mine reconnected with a High School buddy when the friend posted a film they'd made for a class 35 years ago! And, John, thanks for the kind words! Yes, folks, John Floyd is everything he seems and better!

  23. Thanks, Jeff! Meeting e-friends for real is one of the good things about Bouchercons, right?

  24. Right! :) I read somewhere that the conventions are where people who hardly see each other fall in where they left off like long-lost friends!

  25. I'm a great believer in social media and all the "new" ways we can find to communicate. I think it all adds to the inter-connectivity of our lives and enriches us.

  26. Jeff, I think that's accurate. And the electronic communication between us keeps us up-to-date between conferences!

    I agree, Stephen. Thanks for chiming in!

  27. I just now found this blog post, so I'm definitely late to the party, but I had to say what a pleasure it was meeting John in person. Sorry, John, but you were not exactly as I'd imagined...you were much taller. Here's looking forward to seeing you again sooner rather than later.

  28. Hey BJ--better late than never! Thanks for the comment.

    It was great meeting you as well, my friend. We live too close to each other (one state apart) not to get together now and then and talk mystery writing. Take care!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>