Here’s an idea: try having an entire conversation without pulling out your phone
It is getting increasingly difficult in modern conversations to keep our phones out of our hands. Have you noticed? It seems that every conversation we have refers back to something in the virtual world. There is always a calendar to be consulted, a weather forecast to be checked or a question to be answered by Google. It is hard to get anything done these days without consulting our devices.
And it is not only logistical administrative functions that bring our phones out of our pockets. As we live more of our lives online, it is only natural that the content of our conversations refer back to our online world. “Did you see the video about…?” “Have you listened to this podcast…?” “I was just reading this article on my favorite blog…?” And then, invariably, we find it easier to simply pull our phones out and show the other person what we are talking about, rather than trying to merely describe it using old-fashioned words.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating by calling words “old-fashioned.” Living in the age of digital photo and video, we are becoming much more visual in the way we consume information. If a picture says a thousand words, why bother talking when you can pull a picture of anything out of your pocket and insert it into your conversation?
The phone also becomes a necessary conversation tool since it now serves as the external hard drive for our memories. “I ran into Joe, the other day. You don’t remember Joe? Let me pull up his profile and show you.” Or, “Am I free Friday night? I’m not sure, let me check my calendar.” Or the all-too-common, “What was the name of that [insert ’80s pop culture reference here]?”
The question we need to answer is how much are these devices really supporting our conversational efforts versus suppressing them? From my perspective, they seem to get in the way at least as much as they help. What I notice more than anything is that the flow is broken as soon as the device comes out.
Two people could be having a great conversation, even while sharing stories about things they had seen online. But as soon as one person says, “let me show you” and pulls out their phone, there is a horrible disconnected pause as they begin scrolling around searching for the amazing Instagram post or YouTube video that they just have to share. They have gone into what author Laurence Scott calls “the fourth dimension,” leaving their conversation partner standing awkwardly alone, waiting for the conversation to begin again.
The natural response to these awkward pauses is, of course, for the other person to pull out his or her phone also. So you have two people, who moments earlier were in a great conversation, now standing silently and separately, staring at their phones.
I’ve been trying recently (and it is NOT easy) to keep my phone in my pocket in social settings. This means I struggle with remembering things that might be relevant to the discussion, I don’t have all the answers about my schedule, or the weather forecast, or who the one-hit-wonder at the top of the billboard charts was in 1985 (it was Simple Minds). But even while muddling my way through these shortcomings, I manage to stay connected to the other person. The connection itself is probably more important than getting all the details right, and it is certainly more precious, now that connections are so easily disrupted by technology.
A good way to use technology might be to use it to extend these moments of connectedness, rather than disrupt them. Rather than interrupting the flow in the midst of the conversation, we can send a message afterward. Technology is a great bridge to connect back to people we are no longer with in person. But when we are in person, we should keep it in our pockets.