Who can you talk to in a virtual world?

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Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Before long, AI will be making phone calls for us. Google demonstrated  this reality a few weeks ago when Google Assistant called and made an appointment with a human stylist. The typical stilted electronic sounding voice of automation has been refined to sound just like a real person, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs.”

This opens up so many possibilities and challenges. Previously, we would ask, “With whom am I speaking,” to get a name to refer to later. Now we ask, “Where are you calling from?” knowing that we may be talking to someone in a call center on the other side of the earth. In the future we’ll wonder, “Is this a real person or a computer?”

I can think of a few future scenarios in my own line of work. In the not too far off future, the guest sign in book at church will be an iPad. I won’t have to try and decipher the handwriting anymore since you’ll type in or speak your name and email. Later that afternoon or evening, you’ll get a phone call that sounds like me, but will actually be my digital assistant who has found your phone number and contacted you. On Monday morning when I check my calendar, I’ll have an appointment with that’s week’s visitors, all arranged by AI. I’ll be able to glance over information about you and your family gleaned from your social media accounts, fuel for our conversation. (And yes, my self-driving car will take me to your home so I can download my computer-generated sermon on the way.)

I know, that scenario is out there, but it made me wonder about our pursuit of avoiding human contact. Just think of all the ways we no longer have to talk to a person.

  • I get my cash from an ATM, no longer interacting with a teller inside the bank.
  • I order food or coffee with an app or at a kiosk in the restaurant, and then grab it off a shelf.
  • I do the majority of my shopping online. I rarely see anyone drop packages off at my door. They just magically appear!
  • I ask my phone for directions instead of a person. It routes me around accidents and traffics snarls, too.
  • I wonder what percentage of my human interactions take place via text or email? Honestly, I’d guess more than half.

My experiences only scratch this reality that isolates us more and more each day.

  • Virtual schools now replace some brick and mortar classrooms and flesh and blood teachers.
  • Your resume or application has been vetted by AI long before someone in human resources or a loan officer ever lays eyes on it.
  • How many people diagnose their own ailments and treat their own diseases by consulting online resources rather than going to the doctor?
  • You no longer have to go to the store for groceries, dealing with all those annoying people who clog up the aisles and make you wait in line. Your digital order will arrive later this afternoon.

I love the possibilities of AI, am fascinated by the technology, and love to discover what I can do. But how many have adopted these technologies to avoid human contact? Do those who don’t like or fear their classmates, teachers, and coworkers find refuge in a virtual world? No doubt. What about those seeking to avoid illness, judgment, conflict, prejudice or hatred? Probably. Or if you just want your own way, without having to persuade, convince or compromise, it can be quite satisfying, I guess.

Well, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to infiltrate just about every area of our lives. And even though I tend to be a private person who enjoys alone time, I can’t stay there. Not for too long, anyway.

I get so much more accomplished when I actually talk to a person. A few minutes of conversation can be so much more productive than an endless volley of texts or emails over several hours or days.

Talking to someone in person is the best. Whether it’s a difficult visit or one I’ve looked forward to, face-to-face is always better than my anticipations. I think we’re wired that way.

Laughter, sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, inspiration, and calmness all seem to be contagious. Catching emotion from those around us makes me feel something. It makes me feel alive.

I enjoy teaching. Which means I like being with someone or a room full of students, asking questions, giving examples, sharing experiences, listening to ideas and conveying understanding. Classrooms are alive!

I love music, too. I can sit and play for hours. But it’s so much more fun to play in a band or sing with a group!

I know too many widows and widowers who now have to eat alone. It’s no fun. I know too many young people whose human interaction has been so limited they have a hard time with conversation. That’s frustrating. Too many have surrendered to abusive behavior because they had no one to tell, and no one to teach them differently. That’s tragic. Too many have turned to violence because they knew no other way to relate to the world around them. That is frightening.

Don’t worry, you won’t become obsolete in a digital world. There’s someone who needs you to talk to them. Someone real. Someone just like you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just listen.

listenMy friend J. stopped by the other day to cancel a lunch appointment later in the week. He had to go out of town, so we’d get together some time in the future. He could have called, but he was out and around, so he came to the church to talk to me. And he did, for about fifteen minutes, about all kinds of things. Standing in the hallway, I just listened and nodded as he wandered seamlessly from topic to topic.

The last time I went to visit S., he was in a pretty good mood and shared with me his plan to regain enough strength and balance in his legs to leave the nursing home and move back home. After my initial greeting, I didn’t have to say much. He had mastered the art of speaking without periods. Every sentenced ended with a comma-like pause, and segued into the next thought, story, complaint or reflection. Sitting there, I just listened and nodded for about thirty minutes.

My visit to K. found her in good spirits even though she would not be going home. Case workers were searching for a suitable assisted living situation for her. She too had much to say about her family, friends, and possible future. Thirty minutes into the visit, I had only spoken two sentences as she chatted about everything and everyone.

S. topped by the church office with a question, which led to additional questions, apologies for having so much to say, and lengthy stories which never quite reached a conclusion. Twenty-five minutes of listening and nodding.

I believe these and many others are simply starved for someone to talk to. They are either alone most of the time or just don’t have anything left to say to those they live with and are famished for conversation. So I listen. And I tell myself over and over in my mind, “They need to talk. Just listen.”

With more and more ways to communicate, we actually talk to fewer and fewer people. Instead of calling to order a pizza, I use an app. I exercise with virtual people on DVDs. I reserve boarding dates for my dog via a popup chat box. I don’t know if there is a real person on the other end or not. I’ve gotten a rental car at a kiosk with a screen and a talking head, rather than from a person on the other side of a desk. I get texts instead of phone calls. A machine at the grocery store tells me what my blood pressure is.

I’m comfortable with all the technology and use it all the time. But my day is also peppered with phone and in-person conversations with people that I know well as well as those I’ve just met. But one day, if I don’t (or can’t) go out much, and have outlived some of the people I used to talk to, I’ll bet I’ll crave someone, anyone, to talk to, too.

So I’m paying it forward now. Go ahead and talk. I promise to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch and a ride

OK, one more “that time I helped someone” story:

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Photo by Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash

This one happened in Florida, late one morning when the intercom from the front office told me, “There’s a man on the phone who wants to talk to the pastor.”

I knew how these conversations usually went. But I wasn’t all that busy and was feeling fairly pastoral, so I said, “OK, I’ll talk to him.”

It was a little different than what I expected. He didn’t ask anything of me other than wanting to have lunch with me. I was free for lunch, so when he told me where he was, I told him I would meet him at the barbecue restaurant just a quick walk away.
When I arrived at Woody’s, I figured that he was the guy standing by the front door, so I introduced myself, we went inside and sat down.

I told him lunch was on me. I was fairly certain a request for help would eventually come, so I was prepared to pick up the tab. When the waitress came, I ordered a lunch special, but he only got a plate of fries and some ice water. Interesting.

As we waited for our food he did most of the talking and I mostly listened. He was an experienced truck driver and was on his way to St. Augustine for his next job. He didn’t have his own truck, but was meeting someone for his next haul.

The food arrived in a few minutes, and while I enjoyed some pulled pork and sweet tea, he launched into a lengthly monologue about driving truck, his experiences and what he hoped his future would look like.

trucks“You know all those orange and blue trailers you see on the road? Those are all beginners. That’s their first job. Trust me, they aren’t making much money. Barely enough to get by. They are just learning how to drive, so when you see them, give them lots of room.” I took his word for it, though I didn’t know if that was a fact.

I did ask, “So how long do you have to drive before you are making good money?”

He said, “At least ten years. Until then, you aren’t making anything. Most drivers don’t last that long. You have to stay clean — no record, no drugs, no alcohol. Most can’t do it. Companies can’t find drivers who are clean and most guys who want to drive can’t get jobs.”

Our conversation went on for about an hour. Mostly about truck, a little bit about family, and of course a mention of church life, since I’m a pastor and all. Then he mentioned that he just need to get up to St. Augustine to pick up the truck for the next job.

I said, “I can give you a ride.” He was meeting someone at a place near the outlet mall. Half-an-hour away, not a problem. Of course, in the back of my mind a voice tried to tell me I probably shouldn’t do this alone. But I didn’t feel threatened and he seemed honest enough, so we headed up the interstate to his destination.

On the way we talked about where he had lived in Florida, his time in the military, his kids, who were grown and living somewhere, and of course a quick mention of wanting to get back to church. In fact, when he was in the area, he would probably stop in.

When we got to the motel, he told me his truck was arriving the next day. I wasn’t going to just leave him there, so I went inside and paid for a hotel room for him.

As I drove home, I marveled at how he chose to spend a couple of hours with me rather than just asking for some help. I don’t know if he had practiced that skill, or if it just worked out that way. But it was effective. I probably would have said no to an outright request, but was willing to help as the need unfolded. Pretty clever. I’ll bet anyone could use that strategy. Invite someone into your life, gradually unfold your need, and let them be a part of your story.

I didn’t come away from that encounter feeling used. Instead, I was fascinated how our lives had intersected for just a moment in time. I learned a lot. Every time I see one of those trailers on the highway, I remember that day and what he told me about those drivers. I also think often about my vocation, and how people seek out a pastor for help. I’m safe, often generous and usually compassionate. I didn’t do any preaching or teaching that day, just bought a guy lunch and gave him a ride. Ministry moments aren’t spectacular. Neither was Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.