When I was a sophomore in journalism school, one of my teachers gave us an assignment that seemed pretty easy at the time: Listen. Take your headphones out, put down your cell phone, sit on a park bench and listen to the world around you.
Insert your cliche thoughts here. Headphones drown out the noise but also cause my generation to be less tuned in to the world around them. It is just another way that electronics and technology have pushed this world to become less personable. Yes, sure, whatever you say.
This world is loud. There are 100 different people having 100 different conversations, and now they don’t even need friends with them to do so. There are cell phone conversations and music and the clicks of keyboards. One person is louder than the next.
When I venture out into the world, I make sure to do it in my own environment. In my car, I close my windows and put my own music on, drowning out the other people on the roadway. At work, my headphones are in and an array of classical music protects me from distractions. Those are just my basic defense mechanisms.
So, when I inadvertently packed away my phone charger and left my iPod at home to travel this holiday weekend, you can imagine my dismay. It wasn’t like I was going on a 10-minute car ride to work without a CD; this was a seven-hour travel session with hundreds of people. I had no barrier. I was horrified.
Then I remembered an article I had read in a magazine recently. Airplanes, and airports for that matter, are one of the top places to meet people and make connections. Those connections can be romantic, professional or purely friendly, but the atmosphere fosters friendliness.
I walked past ticketing, through security, sat in my terminal and waited. Then it happened. The elderly woman across from me looked up and smiled. She was heading to Philadelphia on her way home from visiting her family. At 84, traveling was still fun for her. She only had one daughter, so traveling to see her was never trouble and the sight of her grandkids always warmed her heart.
Then she boarded her plane and left me.
Being a reporter means I can’t help but turn everything into a social experiment. I met 26 people on my flights home and back. Some were mad at delays, others were lamenting their time home, but many others were just generally chatty. I learned about people’s jobs, their medical problems, relationship woes. Just being kind, smiling, and offering an ear made me into a pseudo psychologist.
Sometimes, as these people talked, I wondered if they had told their families or their spouses the same things they were telling me. When asked, I would share details of my life. It wasn’t like I held back, I just didn’t divulge all my dearest and darkest secrets.
When I landed in Nashville, I got to my car and turned the ignition. Instead of rolling up the windows, I left them cracked. Instead of blasting music that would usually keep me entertained through the two-hour drive home, I left the radio off. There were no buds in my ears, no text messages to answer. I was alone with myself, something that doesn’t happen too often, and it felt amazing.
I vowed right then and there to stop putting myself in a bubble, stop putting up walls that stop me from connecting with the people and the world around me. No more headphones for me! I would be one with the environment I was in.
Then I got back to my apartment and could hear my neighbor’s voice through the thin walls. Every time I drifted to sleep, her voice woke me up or a text message alert would ring into my ear. I battled for 20 minutes, then laughed a little. I stuffed by ears with the headphones attached to my iPod, and rolled over to go to bed. My grand headphone experiment would have to start tomorrow.
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652.