I am not a narcissist, but I am the most important person you know. When I’m talking to you. When you read an essay or article of mine. When you’re in a meeting with me. When you’re sharing a meal or a drink with me.
In olden days — like 10 years ago — we would call this “attention.” We would say, “Oh, look, you’re paying attention to what I’m writing” or “It’s nice of you to pay attention when I’m talking.”
And yes, I know how important your social network is to your fragile ego, your delicate self-esteem. That you need to understand and be reassured that nothing more important is going on in your world. That you’re not going to dump me in mid-conversation for a potentially better conversation somewhere else.
Yes, I am the most important person you know. And here’s why…
So what brought this on? Why do I need to reassert my importance in your life?
Well, perhaps David Carr’s New York Times’ rant about texting while at SXSW — and essays like it — reminded me I need to put my own two cents about this particular behavior — to be texting while out with another person.
I should start off by saying that a technology conference like part of SXSW is probably not the most ideal situation to be noticing aberrant human behavior. It’s full of technologists who probably have a higher prevalence of people who are socially awkward to begin with (yes, I know, this is a stereotyped generalization, but one with a basis in truth in my experience). Technologists embrace technology first and people second, and often demonstrate an attachment to new technology that borders on the emotional.
Out of the hundreds of comments in response to that article, this one caught my eye:
I had the strangest experience this week when out with my boss for lunch. He took a full ten to fifteen minutes to check his smart phone while I was sitting directly across the table from him. He never looked up. I felt like a child. I ate my soup and felt humiliated. I didn’t know what to do.
Indeed, the etiquette in this situation calls for you to ape his behavior — take out your smartphone and pretend to check all the things going on in your life. Or not going on in your life. This is the standard behavior now, when one cell phone gets pulled out, everyone take that as a cue that it’s okay to do your own check-in.
Like a Pavlovian dog hearing his bell, when an iPhone comes out, that’s your signal that it’s now “okay” to get your reward — reassurance from your social cloud that nothing more important is happening. Or that you’re still alive, since your Facebook “friends” haven’t seen an update from you in over an hour.
While there is much said in jest here, there’s also much said in truth.
Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, said:
“When people are out and they’re among other people they need to just put everything down,” he said. “It’s fine when you’re at home or at work when you’re distracted by things, but we need to give that respect to each other back.”
His words brought sudden and tumultuous applause. It was sort of a moment, given that we were sitting amid some of the most digitally devoted people in the hemisphere.
This is, of course, incredibly ironic and a bit hypocritical, because I’d hazard to guess that most of the people in the audience who were applauding were guilty of just this sort of behavior. And likely continued doing it throughout the rest of the conference, because the social norms at SXSW are such that it’s okay to be in a group of 10 people, all glued to their iPhones without a single spoken word being exchanged among them.
In my reading of the psychological literature, I’d suggest this kind of behavior largely comes down to two components. The first is that each one of us honestly believes that there may be something important waiting for us online needing our immediate attention. Our technology is too stupid right now (or we’re too stupid to figure it out) to let us know, in a subtle manner, when something really is important needing our immediate attention. Second is our need to be reassured — to placate our fear of missing out on something “better” going on.
There may be a third component as well — the false belief that this behavior is actually okay and acceptable now. I say “false,” because nothing could be further from the truth.
Such interruptions are really no different than if you stopped me in mid-sentence to talk to someone else — someone I don’t know and whom you haven’t introduced — then went right back to talking to me as though nothing happened. Face to face, most of us wouldn’t imagine doing such a thing. But because it involves a piece of technology instead of a person, we’ve somehow arbitrarily made the bad decision that it’s okay.
When I’ve taken the time out of my life to spend time with you, I’ve made a commitment to you. That commitment is simple — you are the focus of my time, and I expect the same in return. By pulling out your smartphone in the middle of our conversation — even if there’s a momentary lull in our conversation — you’re demonstrating that not only are you rude, but that you don’t really care about this commitment you’ve made.
Trust me when I say that nothing — nothing — is happening in your world that is more important than me when you’re with me. Nothing. (There are, of course, rare exceptions in case of true emergencies, but generally you’ll receive a phone call when that happens — not a text.) A quick check may be okay, but replying to a text or email generally is not.
I guess I’m showing my age when I think that simply paying attention — and showing a little impulse control — is a valuable component of both professional and personal relationships. We’re smarter than the Pavlovian dogs, right?
What do you think? Should texting be banned while in a face-to-face, one-on-one or small group conversation? Can most things wait?