CHARLIE MITCHELL: Communication's easier, but certainly not simpler

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Well, it had to happen. I got chewed out at in the grocery store for “not speaking.”
There I stood. My chicken pot pie (Marie Callender) and frozen fries (store brand) thawing in the basket. I was speechless while being chastised for being, well, speechless.
She had been behind me.
I did hear her say, “Hey, how are you?”
But in the microsecond that followed, my brain queued up a song from the ’70s (“We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who) and I ignored her greeting.
The reason, of course, that since the advent of cell phones I have too often responded to people who weren’t talking to me.
And I wasn’t going to fall for it this time.
Don’t lie. You’ve done it.
Minding your own business, you hear someone talking and turn toward the sound. Seeing no one else near the talker, you say something, too. Then you spot the phone or one of those oh-so-attractive ear buds.
And if you don’t feel bad enough for having joined a conversation to which you weren’t invited, there’s usually a glare cast in your direction. It has only one translation: “Wasn’t talking to you, moron.”
So I wasn’t going to be a sucker this time.
Not again.
I had turned slightly at the sound of her voice, but turned back to my basket as if I had heard nothing.
So she spoke her greeting again.
And, the decision having been made, I ignored her again.
The tongue-lashing ensued.
I didn’t have a chance to explain my snobbery, my conceit, my being “too good” to return a simple kindness.
And I’m not sure it would have done any good.
Students do this to me, but in reverse.
I work on a college campus. I like to walk. I like to speak to people. It is a friendly place.
Often, however, I have spoken to an approaching student only to have the student’s face respond in puzzlement. Then, the students fix me with a “bothered” stare, stop, reach under their hair or cap and pull out the earpieces that my aged eyes had failed to detect.
“What?” they’ll ask.
“Uh. Er. I was just saying good morning.”
Their expressions of botherment intensifies. They had their tunes going. I had interrupted Dierks Bentley or Rihanna for nothing more important than “good morning.” I get an obligatory “good morning” in return and the students start repositioning their gizmos – which is far more complicated than tugging them out.
I have a solution for this dilemma.
While on my walks, I still speak, but only after getting close enough to check for earbuds. If the distance is too great or there’s any doubt, I don’t speak. I smile and nod. The students can smile and nod in return and not miss a beat of Dierks or Rihanna. No harm. No foul.
But I am still at a loss as how to deal with encounters like the one in the grocery store. I made an enemy out of a person without even trying. That wasn’t fun.
Lawyers have something called a “stipulation.” It’s a 50-cent word for both sides agreeing to a fact. In a divorce case, for instance, attorneys for the parting couple will “stipulate” that the spouses were legally married to start with. That allows them to skip proving that fact in court.
So I’m thinking about a T-shirt seeking a stipulation. It would be imprinted with, “If you speak to me, please consider the greeting to have been returned.” I would don it every time I go to the grocery.
If this approach proves socially acceptable, I may go into the business of marketing these shirts to students who don’t like having tune time interrupted.
Of course, sales would be slow up North, where, as a rule, fewer “good mornings” or “good afternoons” are exchanged. The shirts would be a regional product.
Regardless of what it is, there needs to be a solution to this new reality. Science has made communication easier at the technical level, but more awkward at the social level.
And not that I want the last word or anything, but if my former friend from the grocery store happens to be reading and has made it this far, please let me say this:
“Fine. How are you?”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email

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