Family & Friends · Technology

What Can We Do About Cell Phone Incivility?

Even as I was writing about the seduction of texting or returning an email to the exclusion of being in the present moment, my new computer scrolled fresh text messages across the top of my screen. It was mesmerizing and distracting. So please don’t think I’m claiming smartphone sainthood; still, just as we need to be aware of nutrition and physical health, it’s becoming clear that we need to be aware of our mobile phone and technology health. I am also asking this question: “What is our role—those of us who are older—in promoting awareness about what I can only call ‘cell phone civility?’” As a generation who grew up without much of this technology, should we be providing a counterbalance to smartphone exhibitionism or the seduction of texting or returning an email?

  • A friend who is the grandmother of two teenage girls took them for a day of wonderful outings in New York, but only on the agreement in advance that the girls turn off their cell phones. Several times that day they complained about it, and my friend wondered if she had done the right thing.
  • At a deli few weeks ago, I stood behind a smartly dressed young woman who was speaking loudly and authoritatively into her cell phone as she paid for her coffee. She never made eye contact with the cashier, nor did she thank her as she pushed the bills across the counter after rummaging distractedly through her purse. Increasingly uneasy about her treatment of the young woman behind the counter, I said, “Are you going to say ‘thank you?’” She slammed her purse shut and glared at me, retorting loudly, “I am on a business call!” She stormed out, sarcastically wishing me a nice day. I smiled apologetically at the young woman behind the counter and said I hoped I hadn’t embarrassed her. “It happens all the time.” she said. 
Something seems to have spun out of control when we can be gracious to the person we are speaking to on the phone but oblivious to those around us.

Over the past few years I have heard patients describe feeling hurt, outraged, or dejected by their interactions with texting, on Facebook, or in interacting with other forms of social media.  Self-worth and personal value too easily are linked to the number of emails, conference calls,  “likes” on Instagram or Facebook, or responses to a tweet. Conversely, various forms of social media have been inadvertent forums for cruel insults and sometimes dangerous threats. The lamentable cyber-bullying  that is so common on the Internet flourishes because anonymity prevents the bullies from suffering any consequences for the cruel or outrageous things they say.  

But is it fair to say that sometimes those bullies are right in front of us, like the young professional woman in the deli line, who wasn’t aware—or perhaps didn’t care—that her behavior was dismissive, if not passively contemptuous, of both the cashier and those in line behind her?

Social connection is important, but Dr. Dan Siegel most likely would say that thoughtful, attuned time together is what enriches personal relationships. A study—the Harvard Study of Adult Development—of 724 men over 75 years showed that “people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier . . . physically healthier and . . . live longer than those who are less well connected” (TED Talks, Robert Waldinger: “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness). Used wisely, social media, texting, and email can enhance relationships, but these same technologies are also the source of isolation, addiction, and disconnection from the world around us.

So this small post is asking for us to begin to observe—not to tune out—the impact of smartphones on everyday civility and be mindful of what it is to be truly present in our conversations and interactions. As we observe, what is our role in promoting a culture in which quality, not quantity, matters, as do acts of kindness and civility? Should we say something—politely—to the cell phone exhibitionist who is rude to the cashier in front of us, or to the waitress, the bank teller, or any number of others? Should we ask our friends and family members if they might put their cell phones away during the meal or walk? What is fair to ask of our grandchildren? I believe we can make a difference. Let’s start talking about how.

RELATED: “Family Time: Quanity, Quality, and Making It Count

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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!)

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