The University of Washington offers “Introduction to Public Speaking” as the first in a four-part course in “Dynamic Public Speaking Specialization.” I found this offering online as I was browsing for information about public speaking. No one who has known me for more than twelve minutes would think that I could not safely navigate the waters of public speaking: my mouth doth runneth over. But my search for answers had little to do with educating myself, and a lot to do with trying to understand the phenomenon of people braying into cellphones in public.
Years ago, a good friend of mine used to amuse her circle of friends when she first discovered a Bluetooth earpiece for her cellphone. We, her friends, laugh when we recount all the times we got the early morning call from her while she drove to work. Her device would often drop the call and we would play tag, trying to call her back. Now, the cheapest cellphone available anywhere — even in third world countries — has the most sophisticated speaker and earpieces, and hands-free communication is easy, and in some states, mandated. And when we pull up next to the lone driver yapping away with no one, we know that the speakerphone is on, and what is spoken in the car, stays in the car. But on the streets of the city, there is no such privacy.
On a recent stroll, I was walking behind a woman who was engaged in a conversation that I could easily hear, not because I have bionic hearing, but because she was loud and uninhibited in her exchanges with the person on the other end of the call. I wanted to take notes, and ask follow-up questions of her. I wondered, again, how our society had reached the point where we no longer had any inhibitions about sharing our most intimate thoughts with anyone within earshot. On another day, I saw a man exit a building, walking down the steps in angry and animated conversation with a person (or persons) unknown. I could not see if the man had a wireless earpiece that he was using for a cellphone, but I thought of the irony of the modern times: When I was an attendant at a psychiatric hospital, I was required to treat that kind of event as an observation of someone having auditory hallucinations, and to enter the moment into the patient’s chart as an aid to treatment from the doctors and nurses. (I was lucky to have been wearing the “white coat,” or my arbitrary outbursts of singing might have been considered “charting moments.”)
I have seen people on the street bellowing into cellphones pressed to their chins, and some of the things I’ve heard embarrassed me, but I have also heard some puzzling things in the coffee shops I frequent. Our increasingly congested and urban society seems to be scraping away our inhibitions and reluctance to share with strangers to the extent that now, we over-share, everywhere, all the time.
One of the incentives of courses on “Public Speaking” is to teach the students how to be comfortable speaking in front of a group of strangers. I wonder how much the classes have changed in response to the modern student’s casual regard for the public sharing of personal information thorough social media. If one is comfortable with telling hundreds of “friends” about one’s failure to connect with that “certain someone,” and to engage in vehement arguments with an ex — in the middle of a crowd — about missed child-support payments, I think that one can ace a course in public speaking.
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