I see cell phones everywhere.

It seems that everyone owns them, and not just in case of an emergency. Kids, parents, even grandparents are using them. They talk in the car. They talk walking into the store. They talk on the toilet. I see groups of people sitting in restaurants, in coffee shops together, each of them on the phone. We communicate and have the ability to communicate more often and easier than ever before.

What is the point of talking to another person, whether it is on the phone or face to face? If it’s to have a dynamic relationship, then I am all for it. Dial away. Fill the air waves with words that build and encourage and delve deeper into the lives of your friends and family. But remember that dynamic means active. Dynamic things have a life about them, an energy, an action. When that action stops, a dynamic thing begins to die. That’s the nature of a living thing. It continues to grow, or it dies. The point of talking with another is to connect, and in return, be connected to. But connecting is more than talking.

I always have trouble having a lot of friends. Not because I am not friendly, or anti-social, but because I have a few close friends I want to spend all my time with. I want to have dynamic relationships with them. I know a few people who seem to be friends with the whole world, but don’t connect with them very often. It’s hard to have dynamic relationships with people that you don’t connect with that often. You may hear how Susie got married last weekend or how they got a promotion, but you don’t hear about all the small things — and you are rarely there to experience the small things of life with them.

In Japan, connecting is very important because of how deeply the Japanese care about relationships. Sometimes it even seems that relationships at places like work are more important than the work itself. And the Japanese realize that working on that relationship is a continual process.

A part of Japanese custom is the periodic enkai. An enkai is a party of sorts meant to celebrate a specific occasion. Maybe it’s a new year, or welcoming a new teacher, or after a festival, or because the office just hasn’t had one in a long time. An enkai involves a lot of eating and drinking. But the true fare is fellowship. After a few nibbles of food your fellow workers fall into an old tradition. One by one, each worker takes a large bottle of beer and goes around the room pouring a few sips into each person’s cup, stopping a few minutes to converse and connect.

At first the talk is always simple, polite everyday conversation. It was hot this week, wasn’t it. Did you see that flowering cherry tree in the yard? You did a good job at work this month. The rice harvest promises to be good this year. Only after several minutes of this type of conversation will it begin to get deeper. How is your son? Are you adjusting to life in Ato town? What is your dream?

Most of the conversation is never repeated the next day at school, it may even appear they have forgotten. That’s not the point. An enkai is about strengthening the team, understanding the person working next to you, and building strong relationships by connecting with them. By the end of the night a lot of people are tipsy, but everyone has been communicating and relationships have grown.

I really liked enkais. More than once, I found out that a teacher I thought couldn’t speak English, was actually very fluent. They were just too shy or too respectful of the foreigner’s time to use it before. But at enkais they suddenly opened up and told me all sorts of things. They told where they learned English, where they had traveled, how it felt to speak English, what they think of America, and the job I was doing in Japan. They talked about the Japanese spirit and about the changing attitudes of young people and how Japan itself was changing as a result.

Crucial, important talk. It might have taken a enkai and a lot of alcohol to get to that point, but it eventually did get there. It’s no strange sight to see a group of men walking out of an enkai, arms around each other, laughing and singing. A bond has formed, and at least for a time, people feel like friends, like family.

When I was a boy, I had a time limit when I got on the phone. I only had fifteen minutes to have my conversations. The only problem was that by the time my fifteen minutes were over, I was just getting to what I really wanted to talk about.

A lot of people are the same. By the time they get to the meat of the conversation, they have arrived at work, or at home, or someone else calls and the conversation ends. Sometimes they are in a public place and can’t really talk about the deeper things. They can’t talk about how they have a lump in their breast and how the fear is making it hard for them to sleep and eat and be romantic with their husbands, or how their daughter is beginning to notice boys and is starting to keep secrets and they don’t quite know how to talk to her. Teens will call ten friends a night just to forget for a while how lonely they feel or to escape the family situation. Worse, they might never even tell their friends how they are feeling. The list goes on. Wives don’t talk to their husbands, husbands to their wives, parents to their children, friends to friends. We talk and talk but never really connect.

A hundred million cell phones. Half a billion emails a day. All this communication, and yet it seems less and less is said. Do we talk because we can, or because we are afraid of the silence? Or are we afraid with filling the silence with things that are close to our hearts?

© Seth Crossman