There was once a time when people greeted one another in public with a cheerful smile, a “How are you, today?”, perhaps a mention of the weather, and maybe a tip of the hat. These common courtesies reminded us that, in the end, we all walked the same road, took cover from the same rain, and made the best of the same day. These tiny interactions, seemingly insignificant, bolstered our sense of purpose, gently lifted our spirits, and added to our sense of community. In short, they kept us cheerful.
This isn’t really happening anymore.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. I take a couple of walks during my workday in a bustling tech town near Seattle. I come into contact with at least a dozen people as I walk. I look at them and desire to greet them, but more often than not, I don’t. Almost none of them meet my gaze directly. Some have their head down looking at a smartphone or they’re listening to music through headphones. Obviously they’re in another world and don’t notice me. But even those not engaged with a tech device don’t speak to me. It’s a strange feeling to walk by that many people and not engage with them in any way. It’s as if we have forgotten the art of relating to one another.
You’ll find the same phenomenon on public buses. Seven years ago, when I first started my current job and had to commute on the bus, more people had books in their hands or chatted with one another. Slowly and surely, I noticed things change. Now books are the exception, not the rule. Commuter buses are strangely quiet, and the majority of passengers are peering into their own separate worlds, device in hand. There is very little small talk. People aren’t standing up to offer someone else their seat very much. Buses have become microcosms of connected isolation.
Tell me, is it just me? Or is something going on here?
I’m not just talking about phone etiquette. Sure, smartphones are causing us to forget our manners around other people. They’ve got a word for it – phubbing. It’s when you snub or ignore the people around you by pulling out your phone and engaging with it instead. Entering a private, separate world while around other people should be the height of rudeness. That it isn’t considered supremely rude is a troubling development. That some youth even seem to favor sitting together while using their separate devices is more troubling still.
But it isn’t just how we treat people while we’re on our devices. It’s also how we relate when our devices are not in our hands. We are not talking to people as often anymore, and the conversations we do have may be less meaningful. So what’s going on? How could a device that is meant to give us more social connection end up isolating us? A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Maryland offers a possible answer. That team looked at the effects of mobile phone use on prosocial behavior. The study found that while smartphone use evoked feelings of social connectedness, that use also decreased the need for further affiliation: “People use mobile phones to connect to others and to satisfy their fundamental need to belong. But once this need has been met, there is a decrease in motivation to seek further connection.” So the more we engage in virtual interactions with others through our smartphones, the less interested we become in engaging in social interactions with others around us in the real world. And that study was conducted in 2012! Six years later, the problem has only gotten bigger.
Two things cause this problem in my estimation. The first can be summed up in two letters: ME. Smartphones are little Me Machines – my preferences, things I like, my contacts, my choice of apps and games, my news feeds, my photos, my entertainment. And the more we focus on our Me Machines, the less we want to focus on others. That’s just plain human nature. The other cause of the problem of relating to others is the lack of quality in the connections we are making through our phones. Virtual connections are not the same as actual connections to people in the real world. They don’t engage our senses like physical interactions do. They don’t leave as powerful an impression on us. While it is true that we are connected to more people now than we ever have been in the past, the quality of those connections is not as strong, and therefore the ability of those connections to sustain our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being is not as strong either. We engage in constant interaction with others in the virtual spaces we access on our phones, but at the end of the day, our basic need for human interaction is not being met.
What to do? First, share your experience with me! I want to know if I’m imagining things. Second, check out my post on ways you can liberate yourself from your smartphone. The more you apply boundaries to your smartphone use, the more time you’ll have to engage in real-world relationships. Third, try to be more aware of when you use your smartphone. Avoid using it in public whenever possible. I’ve noticed a domino effect. When I use my phone around others, they are more likely to pull theirs out. And when I see people using their phone around me, I am more likely to pull mine out. When people pass you by or share the same space as you, go out of your way to acknowledge them with a greeting or some small talk. It’ll make them feel good, and it will make you feel good too. And then we’ll remember that we’re all in this together!
Photo courtesy Mirøslav Hristøff via Flickr.