Sherry Turkle from the MIT Media Lab talks about the frequency she hears people say they'd "rather text than talk." People say they feel less vulnerable when they text than they feel in a face-to-face conversation. I agree. I feel less vulnerable texting, too.
So don't be a phone worm. When I was in medical school in the late '90s, I remember classmates making fun of a woman in our class who was pathologically attached to her cell phone. We'd all just learned the word "pathologic," and our family members were already asking us for medical advice, so we all felt comfortable making the diagnosis. Anyway, hers was the phone that would ring its Nokia ringtone multiple times a day to interrupt class back when this was still a novel occurrence:
In the year 2017, I'm not sure she'd even hit the average cell phone use. Recently, at my kids' gymnastics lesson, I was flanked by two women on cell phones. The first one sat to my right, bouncing off my shoulder as she sat. I forgave her for this, because she couldn't see me past the smartphone glued to her left ear. Then she proceeded to scream intermittently at two kids who were not in the gymnastics class, all while never removing the phone from her ear. I didn't blame the kids for being wound up; it was after school, and they were stuck in a building watching a sister when they would've undoubtedly preferred to be outside on the playground. But she couldn't be bothered to interrupt what seemed like a very non-urgent conversation.
I moved to a quieter place, sacrificing my chair for the floor. Then, three feet away, a second person started talking at full voice on her cell phone, telling the unfortunate listener on the other end repeatedly how pissed she'd been earlier in the day. Keep in mind, it was sunny and 66 degrees outside. Either person stepping outside to take her call would have been healthful and humane. But both women, insofar as my amateur observational skills could tell, sat in the middle of a crowded room and talked on their phones for the duration of the one-hour practice, save for the intermittent screaming at their kids. One child actually begged lady number two not to talk on the phone anymore, and was told to "zip it." A third man, who I assume was also a parent, broke his phone conversation only to tell a toddler to "stop fucking around." The toddler did not heed his instruction, and the man was soon sufficiently lost in his talking and texting to allow, shall we say, ample f'ing around, toddler-style.
Sherry Turkle doesn't get into this directly in the brief video above, but this is all consistent with her observations that technology is killing social skills. We collectively show decreased empathy and a decreased ability for self-reflection. A big part of my job is handling sometimes delicate negotiations within clinics or within medical systems or between payers and doctors. In those situations, vulnerability is key. If the interested parties can't look one another in the eye and feel insecure and feel like their decisions impact the other people around the table, we get nowhere.
Don't get me wrong. I've taken my share of calls and texts in crowds. But I've felt like an asshole almost every time. So to keep from being a hypocrite, I've set my phone to no alerts for messages or emails, and I frequently put it on sleep mode, meaning it won't ring unless an immediate family member or neighbor calls (I figure the neighbors have the best view of my house burning down). And though I've occasionally feared that this would kill my productivity, I'm fairly certain now that it does the opposite. I'm more productive the more time I spend apart from my device. People think email is urgent, for example. According to psychologist Dan Ariely, it's not. Yuval Noah Harari, author of some incredible work including Sapiens, meditates for two hours a day. And the astonishingly productive computer scientist and self-help writer Cal Newport is "indifferent" to his smartphone, still subscribes to paper newspapers, and only upgraded from a flip phone because his wife guilted him into it when they had their first baby.
So here's a challenge for this week: Go outside your phone (comfort) zone. The next time you're standing in line waiting for something to happen, or watching your kids jump on the trampoline, or between innings at a softball game, or waiting for a movie to start, leave your phone in your pocket. Better yet, take it to whatever vehicle brought you to the game (except your skateboard; skateboards are a bad place to store a phone). It'll be hard to do, but you have the strength. Concentrate on your breathing. Once you've safely stowed the phone away, look at the others around you. You might have to work for some eye contact, because they probably aren't following the same rules you are. While you're gyrating around trying to get them to look at you, think about their stories. It'll give you something to ask them about. If they won't talk to you, make like Yuval Harari and make this time your meditation. If you're not the meditative sort, think about what you want to accomplish with the rest of the day. Make a mental plan. For a few minutes, don't be a phone drone.