Monday, July 9, 2012

Stop playing with your damn phone and talk to the person in front of you

One of the most striking modern pathologies is the nervous twitch of obsessively checking one's phone.

I use the terms 'obsessive' and 'pathology' advisedly. People will check their email literally hundreds of times a day, even though they might get only 15 emails (if that). And most of the emails are rubbish anyway. How many of them couldn't wait half an hour until you were back at your computer?

Now, ordinarily I'd just put this down to de gustibus non est disputandum. If people want to spend all their lives poring over a tiny screen, that's their business.

But as a question of manners, I find it strange how much obsessive phone checking intrudes into otherwise polite situations.

Last night, I was out at a quite nice restaurant. At the table next to me was a couple, late 20's or early 30's. Quite stylishly dressed. I overhead them say to the waiter that they were on holiday from Dallas.

And yet during the meal, when I glanced over the guy was on his phone continuously for perhaps a two minute stretch at least (or happened to be on it both times when I glanced over). Phone in his lap, head down tapping away. The girl was sitting there poking at her salad, looking bored. It didn't look like the guy was quickly checking wikipedia to settle an argument as to whether the English side in the Battle of Hastings was lead by King Harold or Ethelred the Unready. It looked like he was just zoning out to do his own thing.

Seems like a funny way to spend an evening at a nice restaurant with your girlfriend.

Now, in some ways this isn't the most perplexing case though. Phones are a great way to deal with boredom and social isolation. Perhaps they'd just ran out of things to say, and the guy wasn't good at dealing with silences. It's still somewhat poor form, but understandable.

No, the truly bizarre trait is the people who'll compulsively check their phone while carrying on a conversation (at 50% attention level, of course). That's just plain rude. It's saying that the discussion with the other person is not worth your full attention. Would you just pick up a newspaper and start reading when the other person was in mid-sentence? Would you turn on the TV? No! So put down the damn phone.

This is a trait concentrated almost for the most part in young people. This is partly because they're more technology-obsessed to begin with, and partly because they were less likely to be raised with proper manners. They get used to fiddling with it, and nobody calls them out on it.

Well, screw that. If you're hanging out with me, and I like you enough to consider you a friend, you're going to get called out on it. 'Are we playing phones? Woo! Email!'. Or I'm going to do my annoying thing of swatting at the phone while telling you 'Put it away! Put it away!'. (If you're someone I don't know well enough to do this too, I'l just be quietly judging you as having poor breeding, while deciding if I can extricate myself from your boorish company).

And for the most part, people will put it away without too much hassle. Because they themselves know that they weren't really expecting to find anything more interesting there, and that it basically is just a nervous twitch. (If people really are expecting a particular email or text message, they'll usually apologise and say so, which is always fine).

One alternative to it being compulsive is that they genuinely prefer the company of whatever person they're communicating with by email or text message. You can rule this one out easily by noting that if you reversed the roles of 'person in front of them' and 'person on the other end of the text message', they'd still be doing the same thing.

Another is that social discourse has become sufficiently shrivelled that modern teenagers actually prefer to communicate electronically than face-to-face. This is probably part of it - I note an increasing discomfort among young people to speak to anyone on the phone - you'll call them, and they'll text message you back. (Again, this is likely to get you mocked by me). But how do you explain the behaviour by people who are outgoing and gregarious? They don't have any reason to avoid real conversation. Instead they just want to get the positive buzz of an email or text message and (sort of) continue the conversation. It might be that they're selfish in assuming their time is more valuable that yours. It might also be that they're equally happy for you to be doing the same thing back (which seems like one of Dante's circles of conversational hell). It's both hilarious and scary to watch groups of teenagers all sitting around, all playing on their phones and half-talking while texting whichever of their friends aren't immediately in front of them.

The one saving grace in all this is that I'm old enough that my generation doesn't communicate so much by text message, so most of the obsession is on the email front. Because of the immediacy and greater intrusiveness of text messages, people feel the need to respond quickly. But then the other person responds back, and now you're doing nothing but text messaging each other back and forth. At least with email, if there's nothing there when you check, you have to face up to the rejection and go back to the person in front of you. Text messages succeed more with the phone-obsessed  because they provide a never-ending stream of distractions.

Do you ever find yourself  laughing at the idiots playing farmville on facebook, obsessively logging in to water their crops every four hours so that imaginary animals don't die?

Don't. The psychology of people gettting stuck in stupid hedonic feedback loops and ending up doing obsessive things is exactly the same as compulsive phone checking. Farmville just figured out how to turn a profit on it.

And so, in their own way, did the phone companies. It's not for nothing that the prices charged on text messages are astronomical relative to their cost to send. Addicts will always pay up.

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