The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that’s being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being’s home life. The very essence of the cell phone’s hideousness, as a social phenomenon–the bad news that stays bad news–is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal. And there is no higher-caliber utterance than “I love you”–nothing worse that an individual can inflict on a communal public space. Even “Fuck you, dickhead” is less invasive, since it’s the kind of thing that angry people do sometimes shout in public, and it can just as easily be directed at a stranger.
My friend Elisabeth assures me that the new national plague of love yous is a good thing: a healthy reaction against the repressed family dynamics of our Protestant childhoods some decades ago. What could be wrong, Elisabeth asks, with telling your mother that you love her, or with hearing from her that she loves you? What if one of you dies before you can speak again? Isn’t it nice that we can say these things to each other so freely now?
I do here admit the possibility that, compared with everyone else on the airport concourse, I am an extraordinarily cold and unloving person; that the sudden overwhelming sensation of loving somebody (a friend, a spouse, a parent, a sibling), which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I’m at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routine and easily achieved that it can be reëxperienced and reëxpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.
It’s also possible, however, that too-frequent habitual repetition empties phrases of their meaning. Joni Mitchell, in the last verse of “Both Sides Now,” referenced the solemn amazement of saying I love you “right out loud”: of giving vocal birth to such intensity of feeling. Stevie Wonder, in lyrics written 17 years later, sings of calling somebody up on an ordinary afternoon simply to say “I love you,” and being Stevie Wonder (who probably really is a more loving person than I am), he half succeeds in making me believe in his sincerity–at least until the last line of the chorus, where he finds it necessary to add: “And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” No such avowal is thinkable for the person who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.