Family & Friends · Technology

What Can We Do About Cell Phone Incivility?

Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist in private practice. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 30 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity. —Ed


I feel lucky in many ways not to experience myself as older. Yes, there is arthritis in my thumbs and I don’t sleep all that well, but overall I’m finding this third act—or next chapter—a rewarding time in life. I love the extra time that came with having retired as the clinical director of a trauma program. Since giving up administrative work, I have more time for friends and family, and when I am working, I can focus solely on my private psychotherapy practice and teaching.  I am able to enjoy a morning in my kayak without checking my watch, or just as easily hop onto the subway to participate in all New York has to offer.

But recently I’m feeling . . . if not old, at least out of step with a society deeply impacted by mobile and digital technology. As a therapist I spent years of training learning to listen for the ways in which the human heart is expressed through language, vocal tone, and facial expression. As smart as smartphones are, cell phones and social media seem to be pushing us toward quantity (number of exchanges) versus quality (the richness of these exchanges). Simple moments of reverie or sharing in thoughtful conversation can be lost to multiple incoming messages and emails or the intrusions of cell phone chatter around us.

Last week, waiting on a Rhode Island train platform, I watched a group of teens typing quickly into their mobile phones, apparently texting each other; a mother with a baby in a backpack who was gazing up at her while she gazed into her smartphone; and a young man on his Bluetooth having an argument with his girlfriend. Around me was a New Age symphony of connection and disconnection, played out via the smartphone. I felt a bit like the little girl I once was in rural Minnesota, eavesdropping on neighbors’ “party” phone-line phone calls, except that the callers around me on the train platform didn’t care who overheard. Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne actually suggests, in her article “Why Are Public Cell Phone Users So Annoying?that “habitual public cell phone talkers . . . seem to be egged on by an audience to sound important, busy, and successful . . . Public cell phone behavior is a form of  performance art.”  

Dr. Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA medical school and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute (The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being) cautions that while smartphones can help us feel less isolated, usage shouldn’t come at the expense of “conversation between two people, an interactive experience that goes beneath the surface to illuminate the inner life of the mind” (from “3 Steps to Disconnecting from Our Phones and Reconnecting with our Teens“). Dr. Siegel is gently warning us that we may lose the very thing we are seeking—a sense of genuine closeness—in the frenetic dance of emailing and texting.

 RELATED: “The Digital Dilemma: Setting Rules for Our Wired Kids” 

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  • Roz Warren June 13, 2016 at 11:26 am

    I am totally with you! You can buy a cell phone blocker on the internet that will shut down ALL cell phone service within a ten foot radius. All you have to do is turn it on. (Don’t ask me how I know this!)