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‘Put down the phone and start knocking on doors,’ Michelle Obama says

Michelle Obama has warned about the pitfalls of social media while speaking on her book tour.

In conversation with American comedian Stephen Colbert, at London’s O2 Arena, the former first lady said: “We have to be a lot more sceptical about social media and the internet – we have to do a lot more work and be willing to be a lot more vulnerable with one another.”

The 55-year-old relayed the importance of face-to-face contact, urging the 15,000-strong audience: “Don’t read about your neighbours on Twitter. Somebody can talk into your ear about the person living next to you – and they can feed you lies and misperceptions.

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“Put down the phone and start knocking on doors,” she added. “People can never be as mean to you to your face as they would be online.”

Ms Obama was sure to mention the positive powers of social media, saying it was “opening up the world to young people. They’re seeing and experiencing a diversity and clarity that we can’t take away”.

Over the hour-and-a-half discussion, she spoke to the audience about the struggles of adapting to life in the White House, of growing up on the south side of Chicago and of the first time she met her husband at the law firm Sidley and Austin – admitting that it was a phone call that first changed her impression of him.  

“My impression of Barack started before I met him,” she said. “He was the talk of the firm; this kid who wasn’t even a lawyer – who hadn’t finished law school and was a first-year associate. He was coming in already with this sort of sense of wonderfulness.”

Obama admitted to being initially sceptical about his talents. “When you’re used to white people underestimating black people and being surprised when they can talk straight, you become sceptical of what their idea of fabulous is,” she said to rapturous laughter.

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She admitted to being pleasantly surprised when she first spoke to the future president of the United States, saying: “So imagine if you have this picture of this nerdy guy who the white partners think is fabulous. I had to call to give him directions. And he answers the phone in his Barack Obama voice like ‘hello it’s Barack Obama.’ And – ladies – that voice is pretty sexy. That voice didn’t go with the picture – it was smouldering. I could tell he had more flavour than I thought.”

But Ms Obama says that it was the way her future husband treated people that most endeared her to him: “I fell in love with him – the way he treated people. Not just the partners in the firm, but I was impressed with the way he spoke with everyone. He was funny, he was self-deprecating, he was the first attorney or somebody in laws school that wasn’t thinking about how much money he could make as the partner of a firm, he was literally thinking about how he could use that degree to help theirs. His heart, his soul, the way he treated women.”

When her father died at the age of 55, Barack became her rock. Describing a moment the pair were watching Father of the Bride a year before their marriage at the age of 28, she said: “At the end Steve Martin has this moment with his daughter and I literally cried for hours – sobbed, wept, and Barack was there the whole time and he didn’t say a word he just let my cry on his shoulder.”

One moment that received much press during the Obama presidency was the couples’ rejection of stiff-lipped protocol, in particular when the former first lady met the Queen, leaning in to hug her instead of curtseying.

Telling the audience about her impressions of The Queen, Ms Obama said: “She’s wonderfully warm and funny. She’s elegant and kind and considerate in really interesting ways. That was my experience – that kind of warmth and graciousness – that intelligence and wit – I like her.”

Speaking of when she put her arm around the queen, Colbert asked: “Would you do anything differently now?” To which Obama replied: “You know what is true among world leaders is that there are people who follow protocol. To me in that moment [the hug] was the right thing to do because it was the human thing to do.”

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Throughout the Becoming tour, much of the reporting has concerned Ms Obama’s wardrobe – something she spoke about with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she spoke at London’s Royal Festival Hall in December, saying: “All the reports would start with what I was wearing, and we were doing substantive things … It’s incredibly irritating when actually you’re trying to get some stuff done.”

Becoming was first published in November 2018 and has since sold more than 10 million copies, putting it on-track to become the most popular memoir in history. According to the publishers, the book sold more than 7 million copies across all formats in the six weeks to the end of 2018. It also became the best-selling book of 2018, 15 days after it was published, according to NPD BookScan data. In addition, the audiobook, read by Ms Obama, become the fastest-ever seller released by Penguin Random House.

When asked how she managed to keep going during the hardest times of her husband’s role as the 44th president of the United States, Ms Obama said: “Every step of the way there was always someone telling me that I was talking too loud, dreaming too big. And I had to learn that I could either succumb to that and wither away or I could say ‘I’ll show you’.”

When asked about her favourite thing since leaving the White House, Obama said: “I miss the spontaneity of life. I try to explain to people what its like to lose your anonymity. All I wanna do is walk down the street and sit in a cafe and have a cup of coffee.”

As she walked off stage, the entire capacity of the O2 rewarded the author with a standing ovation.

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