Virtual Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

All the world is a soap opera

Culture

On the last leg of a cross-country bus trip, I sat in front of a young man who seemed to be plugged in the entire way. His phone probably never left his hand. At the St. Louis station he chatted with a child—his own, I presume—and her mother, ending his brief conversations with “Love you.” Once on-the-road connections were sporadic and long conversations unpractical, it limited him to sudden effusions of “Hey, bro, whuzzup?” and ending with “Catch you later.”

Then a situation developed: The girlfriend called, obviously perturbed. She’d posted a Facebook status that got no response from him, and his protests that he couldn’t get online failed to satisfy. The issue escalated with strong words (he told her twice he didn’t appreciate her expletive-deleted attitude) until he disconnected with an exasperated sigh. Her post, as I heard him explain to a buddy (after he’d checked it out), was about “missing her man something awful”—not about a broken water pipe or rushing the baby to the hospital. It required no response, that is, unless she was expecting similar anguished sentiments from him.

As we approached our destination, she called back, and the crisis had apparently passed, though he told her he had to cut their conversation short because his mother was on the line. But what I heard next was “Whuzzup?” followed by, “Man, you will not believe the pictures I have on my phone,” followed by a raunchy masculine chuckle.

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We passed in the figurative night. I know nothing of him beyond his conversations. But in those I picked up the rudimentary plotlines of other overheard conversations and certain relatives I have known. An establishment of relationship (“Love you”) leads to conflict development, confrontation, resolution, and return to equilibrium, all in the space of a few hours. It would play out more compellingly in a script, but all the dramatic elements were there, and I couldn’t escape the sense that they were somewhat manufactured. A boyfriend’s non-response to a Facebook post is no reason for an accusatory phone call unless you don’t have much else to do. A girlfriend’s overreaction is nothing to argue about unless you’re stuck on a bus for five hours between cities. At least it’ll give you something to grouse about when you call up one of your buds.

It seems likely she will keep making big deals of small potatoes and he will keep putting up with it until one of them has had enough and walks out, with suitable protestations (e.g., “I don’t need this!”). The process will start over with another girl and another round of “Love yous.” Children produced by these random relationships will take center stage at high moments like birthdays, but will serve more as props than integrated persons (judging by how few parents I see in public having actual conversations with their progeny).

Let me guess: The young man and his current significant other may have jobs but they don’t have ambitions. They have “Likes” but no long-range goals, passing enthusiasms but no abiding passions. People who are occupied with something bigger than themselves don’t have time to drum up a crisis every few hours. Self-dramatizers are not new, but an exploding mass media and shrinking work ethic produces more of them. In a culture that seeks for no meaning outside oneself, what is left but drama?

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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