When I work at home I can often get through a whole day without talking to a living soul.
Only the machines speak — those automated voices you ring to check your bank balance, or your internet connection, or even to buy a train ticket.
Then there are nuisance robocalls about unclaimed PPIs, the disembodied voices on Radio 4, the satnav and, if you’re that way inclined, which I’m not, Siri (who, anyway, doesn’t understand my Scottish accent), and Alexa, the spawn of soulless Amazon hell.
As artificial intelligence takes over, from ordering in a restaurant via iPad to self-service checkouts, more than ever it’s possible to navigate your life without connecting to another human. For me this is a nightmare.
Marion McGilvary (pictured) argued against replacing small talk with artificial intelligence as a new study shows the more interactions you have, the happier you are
I’m a chatty person. When I first arrived down south from a village community in Scotland as a teenager, I would smile and say hello to everyone I saw on the street, on buses, in shops — something that marked me out as a lunatic with an incomprehensible brogue.
My ex-husband is the kind of man who would cross the street to avoid speaking to his mother, because it would be ‘awkward’, but I often go haring up to people I’ve barely met and greet them with, probably alarming enthusiasm. ‘I don’t do small talk,’ he’d say. I don’t call it small talk, I call it being human.
And social psychology research by the University of Essex is proof I’m right — it’s good to chat, no matter how idly. This is something most of us have always known, even if we’ve had it beaten out of us by social norms.
Psychologists are calling them ‘low-stakes friendships’ — those everyday connections with the man who makes your coffee, the woman who drives your bus, the chap in the newsagent, even your hairdresser. The more interactions you have with these ‘weak ties’, the happier you are and the greater your feeling of emotional and social well-being. In short, you feel as though you belong.
This is why it warmed the heart to see Virgin and Arriva acknowledge the benefits of commuter natter last week, when, as part of a BBC project, the former designated a ‘chat carriage’ on its West Coast trains for a day, and the latter deposited ‘conversation starter’ cards in its buses.
Call them what you will — throwaway comments, chit-chat, the daily exchange of pleasantries, I value them all. Take the lovely guy in the local shop where I get my milk. I have no idea what his name is, or he mine, but we have our morning ritual, and his recognition warms me every morning.
Marion revealed she treasures daily exchanges of pleasantries including visiting the local shop and talking to people who regularly share the same bus (file image)
Also, the woman who gets on the same bus as me more often than not. We started with hello and, over the years, moved on to where we worked and what we did. Last week, I hugged her and cried when she told me her husband had died suddenly. As an afterthought we exchanged names.
I don’t talk much to my neighbours, who are too posh to acknowledge my existence, but I have been going to the same pharmacist for years, and she too feels like a friend.
One of the benefits of these so-called low-level acquaintances is that they widen your networks beyond your existing address book, whether you’re looking for a babysitter, lawyer, painter or even a life-partner.
But, for me, these things are not transactional; they are simply oxygen. In a world where you can board the train, buy your lunch, get a coffee and have everything from a sofa to a refrigerated ready-meal delivered to your door without having to use your voice once, we are becoming a society devoid of human interaction.
For many of us, our friends are now on Facebook, and I admit it’s become the garden fence of my inner world, the place where I hear family news and touch base daily with others across the world, even with my children. But I do not speak on it. We don’t open our mouths on WhatsApp or any other messaging service.
Marion who believes no social media app can replace casual chats, says small moments of connection breathe life into her often solitary existence (file image)
Voices are becoming redundant. And yet you can’t Instagram a joke about the weather with the greengrocer — hell, who even has a greengrocer these days?
No social media app can replace the casual chat with the woman in the cafe. Those small moments of connection breathe life into my often solitary existence.
They make me feel I belong, that I’m a leaf on a tree — that this is my neighbourhood and this is my life. These people who are part of the day-to-day ground me.
Is it a delusion? Possibly. I made many acquaintances at the school gates when my kids were small, but sometimes I see these same people out of context and they’ve long forgotten me. But I’m not claiming these are life-long relationships — they are situational, yet no less important for that.
I met a young mother in an exercise class about 20 years ago. Then she turned up working in a local shop. Then I met her at a party, and again at the local pub quiz evenings.
Turns out she lives up the street from me and we have finally become friends — not bosom buddies, but coffee-drinking, dog-walking, wine-sipping friends.
While house-hunting, Marion (pictured) experienced more conversations in one day in Oxford than a week spent in London
Soon, I’m about to leave my neighbourhood in London and move to Oxford, where I know virtually no one. All these mini-networks will disappear.
I worry — who will I talk to in Oxford? Who will know me? Who will acknowledge my existence on a day-to-day basis, other than the cat, whose conversational skills are limited and who, in any case, leaves any room I enter?
There have been small yet encouraging signs, however. When I was house-hunting, a woman on the bus had a long chat with me about the property market. I met the same bus driver twice, who took the time to give me directions and let me off at the correct stop, and a man actually walked with me up the road to show me where to go — and, believe me, it wasn’t because of my looks.
Actually, thinking about it, I had more conversations in one day in Oxford than I have in a week in London and, having lived there in my 20s, I don’t remember it as the chummy capital of Britain.
So perhaps I can make a place for myself there and fill my life with, if not friends, at least friendly strangers. So if you see a plump woman grinning at you like a loon on Oxford High Street, do say hello, before you run off at speed in the opposite direction.