On Conversation

The Short Version

I am coming forward; I glance at my phone during dinner conversations. I glance at my phone to check for notifications. I glance at my phone to check the time. I glance at my phone to preview a text.

Is it rude? Yes. However, I can argue that it depends on circumstance. If there’s a matter more pressing or urgent, the action is warranted. But try to be mindful by letting others know. I make the matter its own event and leave the conversation, i.e. a context switch. I don’t want someone to see me disconnected or disengaged in our conversation. An in-person conversation is dialog that belongs to the participants, not to the outside triggers of life.

I have been experimenting with myself by leaving my phone away from reach when I’m talking to someone. If I’m having a coffee shop chatting with a friend, I’ll leave the phone in my bag. If I have friends over for dinner, I leave it on a counter top where I won’t check it.

The exception is when the phone is the conversational centerpiece. If you want to show something on your phone, then it’s not rude.

The Longer Version

I have a tough time reflecting on ideas that I’ve read. It’s easy for me to read things to learn, but if I were to take a step further and apply what I’ve learned, I become stuck. That’s why this is the fifth time I started writing an essay about Sherry Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Compassion”. Each past reflection was a step closer to finding out how Mrs. Turkle’s book applied to my life. I identified the book applies to three areas of my life — my work, my relationships, and my personal life through notifications.

Let’s take a step back. Turkle’s book discusses the shortcomings of communication with our new technology. These shortcomings focus around modifying our behavior that ends up distancing us. The book uses case studies and interviews to demonstrate the main points.

Work

One case reviews new paralegals using email as a primary mode of communication. These employees prefer email over face to face interaction to their boss and the firm’s clients. Before, paralegals booked face-to-face meetings and talk about their client’s cases in person. After reviewing work performance of some NY firms, there were lots more miscommunication between firm and client. (need to review the effects). A few firms recognized this and forced their paralegals to make contact in person. Within a few months, these firms noticed an uptick with client satisfaction.

Thinking about my company, we use an IM service for work. I have found it far easier to IM my boss than to walk over to him and ask a question. The relationship was established prior that he can be asked questions in person, but for the first few months of my job, I preferred to ping him my questions. Then I realized there’s more to learn through a face-to-face interaction, so I’ve asked him more questions. When he’s busy on something else, he’ll let me know he needs a minute.

Further than that, if there are logistic issues between my co-worker and I, I will initiate a conversation in person or a video chat over resolving the issue over chat. When I’ve applied the latter, more effort is used to re-explain many times my point of view. If there’s a highly technical logical issue I know would be better through text, or more likely, images, then I’ll do that. Emails get flooded and many times, it’s hard to respond to everything. But more on that later.

Relationships

The book also examines texting in romantic relationships. Mrs. Turkle talks to a teenage boy about his first relationship. The teen wanted the appearance the relationship mattered, so when she texted him, he made sure he responded immediately. More than that, he would stare at his response for a while to make sure it sounded right. He took advantage of the editing capability of texting. However, when he met with her in real life, he was scared he might say the wrong thing. Sometimes, the girlfriend didn’t want to remarks of her admirable abilities the boy kept making. Because it’s hard to convey annoyance by texting, the girlfriend would respond negatively. This would devastate the teen, so he would text her non-stop trying to re-write his wrong. In the end, the relationship didn’t work. The teen was confused and hurt, unsure what he had done wrong. After examining this with Mrs. Turkle, he starts to see his errors, but he’s unsure if he can escape the anxiety of each texts on the next partner.

I can relate to this teenager. I have found myself editing my texts to my past partners to sound better than something I can come up with on the spot. I don’t have problems in conversation. I have an issue with flirting through texts than expending energy to quality time, the need I have the most in terms of the Five Love Languages. [1] My aim with my partner is to focus on that need and spend less time focusing on making myself sound more interesting through texts. Besides, I love flirting.

Notifications

Notifications pierce through our attention span and jump to the front of our todo list. Turkle’s book examines the consequences of constantly being bombarded by alerts. Her findings don’t look so good. When we get a text message, many of us will drop what we’re doing and read it. Of the many, the majority will respond to that text right away, even in midst of doing a different task. In other words, when we are talking to someone and receive a text message, few of us will stop that conversation and glance at our phone. Even fewer of us will respond to that text message than to continue to carry the conversation we are already having.

I get bombarded by emails, texts, and other phone notifications. Desktop notifications have slowly crept up too. I am okay with not responding to a notification at ping time, but I have a hard time forgetting about it when I’m notified. My solution is to silent those notifications, if not removing them entirely. I removed most of my app’s notifications except for texts. I will silence my texts during work hours and leave my phone away from me once I get home. I know for the rare chance there’s an emergency, there will be a phone call rather than a text. As for when I respond to texts, it’s whenever I have time to dedicate during the day to do it. Typically, that will be when I run out of steam at work and need a break, which is around 3pm. At home, I can check it after dinner. I have found I don’t sleep well if I text right before bed.

Attention

Turkle talks about this case between parent and child. A mother might be worried about how much time her daughter is spending on the phone. However, the mother takes emails and texts during dinner time, and the daughter tells the mother to get off her phone. Children emulate the behavior parents display. If parents don’t change their behavior, it’s hard to imagine this mother changing her daughter’s behavior.

I don’t have children, but I make it a point when I’m out with my friends to check my phone as little as possible. I recognize the moment I see the phone in sight, I have an uneasy feeling I am battling for their attention. Also, I recognize when I don’t know something that comes up during conversation, I should ask others and not try to check my phone. If all participants don’t know the answer, I still should not find the answer because I know I can’t control myself to continue to browse the Internet after I have found the answer. And I know the other person or persons in the conversation will feel left out, per the point I made in the beginning of this paragraph. Closing thoughts This week, I crossed my 50 day mark of meditation.[1] It isn’t 50 consecutive days, but I still see the effects it had on me. I feel closer to my body than I have before and I’ve reduced my general anxiety. One of the things therapy helped with in my past is recognizing when my body tenses u during stressful situations. I have not been practicing that behavior as much until I started meditating again, and now I recognize the internal battle I’ve been struggling with everyday. Mrs. Turkle’s book shined light on some other areas that weren’t apparent to me I might also be struggling with. Not every case she wrote about applies to my life, but of the number that did and wrote about here, I have some action steps I’d like to try out. I know I might not be successful with some of my initiatives, and that’s okay. If I didn’t try, that would result in how I’ve approached self-help books in the past. The advice is sound, but because I have no action in place to change my behavior, I continue to fall into my own traps.

[1] Since writing this piece, I have stopped meditating. I crossed 60 days and stopped when I went on my trip to Thailand.