Monday, February 1, 2010

Are We Tuning Out By Tuning In?

I think a lot about the ways in which spending so much time online might compromise our relationships with the people we know in real-time.  But what about the people we don't know?  The larger community of mothers with kids who could use a seat, or strangers carrying trays full of hot coffee?

During some recent travel, I found myself at an airport Dunkin' Donuts looking for a table with Tiny Baby strapped to my chest, Big Boy pulling on my hand, and a flurry of bags swirling around my person.  (Husband was in line ordering our breakfasts, also weighed down by the excessive accoutrement that comes with travel with children.)  As I scanned the smattering of tables, I noticed a middle-aged couple sitting at table for six.  Duffel bags took up two of the seats, a laptop case dominated another part of the table.  The woman's coat was draped over another chair.

And both of them were on their cell phones.

I stood for a moment trying to summon a more assertive version of myself.  One who would walk over to them and request that they move some of their things so that we could share their table.

But instead I continued to watch them and then looked around at all of the other harried travelers typing away and talking into their phones, and marveled at the way in which our tuning in causes us to tune out the present world - not just the people we love, but also the people we don't even know.

Soon - I like to think through the sheer force of my nonverbal communication - the man ended his call, looked up, and saw me struggling.  He stood up, cleared off part of the table, and gestured for me to join them.

He was a gentleman, after all, temporarily rendered less genteel by the metallic device pressed to his ear.

Later in that trip, I was dispatched to Starbucks to pick up hot drinks for my family.  After securing my order in one of those cardboard trays, I walked out behind a young woman on her Blackberry.  I assumed that she noticed me only one step behind her - incorrectly, as it turned out, as she let the door close right behind her, and right into my tray of drinks, splashing one mocha, one skim latte, and a venti Pike's Place all over me.

And once again I was left to wonder whether our growing infatuation with All Things Button has made us worse citizens.  Sure, we might text up a frenzy to send aid to Haiti, but what about the common opportunities for courtesy that we miss out on by paying more attention to our electronic companions than those in front of our faces?

Before I started blogging, I had the most basic cell phone package, wasn't on Facebook, and didn't really understand what Twitter was all about.  Now I'm spending my downtime weighing the advantages of the Blackberry vs. the Motorola Droid and have just started to tweet - follow me?  I'm still holding out on Facebook, but, with all of these new forms of technology in my life, I have to wonder:

Am I stepping onto the slippery slope to incivility?

Has the Digital Age made you less polite to strangers?  Is our new-found connectedness a net gain for society?

Image: Cell Phone by JonJon2k8 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


  1. It does seem like you and I have similar questions buzzing in the brain this morning. I think about this all of the time. I think that the rush of techonology can be seen and experienced as a good thing, but we have to be very very careful. We must set limits (ha - impossible) for how we use technology and where. We must be careful about retaining our old school manners. The game is indeed changing and frankly I am all for riding that wave of change (hello, Mixed Metaphor), but we must be conscious about not letting these technological and cultural changes affect who *we* are.

    Fascinating topic and I look forward to the responses here and on my blog as well.

    (Happy Monday!)

  2. I try, I really do, to not use my mobile device in public. Sometimes I can't help it, though.

    Just last night, I was texting prior to entering a lounge to hear a co-worker's band play. I wanted to finish the text (a pipe had broken at the high school during the play and wanted #1 to keep an eye out for possible cancellation of school as I wasn't home) before entering the lounge. I did but during the band's sets I found the urge to let others know how good the band was and how great the food was. I tweeted and posted on Facebook from my phone.

    Do I think it is rude? Somewhat but no more rude than ignoring someone while you talk loudly on the phone in a public place. I tend to apologize to those I am with if my mobile - whether for texting or a call - demands my attention while involved in conversation. As a single mom, I always check it, though, to be sure it is not one of the six.

    Definitely a thought-provoking issue!

  3. I was recently at a conference. There were 5 different speakers throughout the day. As these people were speaking, people were constantly surfing Tweetdeck, texting, playing around on their phones. I was awestruck! I don't think anyone was really listening at all, or even having the decency to PRETEND to listen. It was weird!

    I think people are hyper-plugged-in when they travel...maybe to avoid that awkward interaction with strangers?

  4. AAAH! I just typed a long comment and then somehow hit a button that erased it! Hate that.

    Anyway - the gist of my thoughts (which were much better expressed the first time around, but I'll try to recreate them), was that I am one of those people who suffers from the particular strain of cluelessness that comes from a preoccupation with an electronic device. I can see myself rushing from here to there, caught up in the frenzy of my day, eyes glued to my iPhone. I barely see the world, much less the people in it. And you're right, it's all about how we treat strangers. For me, a person in the flesh will always trump, as long as it's someone I know. But if it's a stranger? I won't even notice them, because I'll be too focused on the cyber strangers I'm encountering through facebook/twitter/the blogosphere.

    All that to say - your post has struck a chord. And so, today, I am going to conduct a little experiment. I'm going to holster the iPhone and attempt to be hyperaware. Look at that, I'm a better citizen, all because of Motherese! :)

  5. You said a mouthful here! Too much technology has dulled our sensitivities. I do not nor do I have any intentions to tweet. I do FB, but not excessively (I used to do it all the time!). Now, I find myself reading blogs when I should be doing other things!

  6. Such a good point. We reach further into the world all the time (helping Haiti is a good example) but neglect the people standing right in front of us (or behind us, with lattes). I know that I become less 'available' to those around me when online/emailing/calling someone, to the point where I'll snap at my kids for interrupting in my less than stellar moments.

  7. While I'm not totally blameless for getting sucked into the technology age -- I spent WAY too much time on the Internet on a daily basis -- in general, I think I'm more low-tech than most. I don't have a text plan for my crappy cell phone, and I don't own a Blackberry...and I LIKE it that way! Nothing drives me battier than going out with a friend and watching them furtively checking something -- but what? -- on their phone/Blackberry. It always makes me feel like a second-class citizen. I'm not opposed to the technology -- I know lots of people who need them and use them -- just the "responsible" USE of that technology.

  8. Oh! I could go on about this one with you for hours over cocktails (or coffee). I have two REALLY good friends who have NEVER gone out with Hubby and me or come over our house for dinner or had coffee or done anything with us without taking out their phones at least once to: twitter, check something online, update facebook status, etc. It drives me NUTS. I don't understand how these two people who are sweet and wonderful and loving and want to spend time with us often do not understand why Hubby and I are offended by this. We went to Disney (as you know) last week and we were shocked by the number of people in line and even walking around on their phones!!! Texting, tweeting, whatever. Why aren't they with their kids? Their spouses? Their families? And don't even get me on FB...I had a whole post about it when I first started blogging. Then, of course, there is the contradiction: I blog. I comment. I follow. I love you guys. I love when you love me back. I certainly take time away from my friends, husband, and children to blog and all things blog-related. Recently, the 1-year-old pushed my keyboard back in and said "All done" then pulled my hand. Yeah, I can be just as bad I guess. But I have never caused spilled coffee...(that I know of, anyway.)

  9. I don't have an iPhone, a blackberrry, or any other device that would allow me to log into the internet outside the home. I also don't own a laptop (or TV for that matter). I don't understand Twitter and rarely log onto my Facebook account.

    Despite these things, I manage to keep up on the internet very well.

    My thoughts are summed up into one thing: balance. Recently, in an effort to better manage my time, my husband suggested I only log on-line while my babies are napping. I thought this an okay idea, but decided to try it nonetheless.

    Miraculously, I am getting more done than ever before. My kitchen is maintained, my living room less messy, and my laundy is getting done. I am running errands and actually focusing on my children.

    Sometimes I wish I had certain things, but other times I am grateful that I am disconnected.

    Although, I am thinking about Twitter. I think I am beginning to understand that a little bit better. (Do tell, do you like Twitter? How has it worked for you?)

    Balance. Something that can be tricky. Something worth finding.

  10. Those of us who care to pay attention to others always will. I don't think technology changes that. At worst, I believe we may have a tendency to be distracted by more "more" - but there are enough positives to that to outweigh the negatives, as in your example of the gentleman who did, indeed, clear the table and make room for your family.

    Those who are buried up to their eyeballs in devices are (at times) hiding as much as they are seeking. I am not convinced that they were genteel or attentive to the world around them previously. Simply looking away, or staring into a paperback, or feigning lack of awareness to others, without the tangible gadgetry in hand.

  11. This is an excellent topic. Our technology is way ahead of our rules about it. I've winged it with my kids by watching their friends take cell phone calls in a crowded car, grinding the car conversation to a halt as they talk. No cell phones at the table, etc. But adults are as much to blame. Common courtesey, right? Yet we all need to be reminded. Nice to catch up on all your posts I missed!
    And I got the book; thanks!!

  12. Interesting question - I'm undecided. I do firmly believe however, that it is everyone's personal responsibility to ask for help if needed. It is not someone else's responsibility to figure out who is in need of help and run to the rescue. We have to kindly request what we want, not assume that other people should know. I believe that most people who receive such a request would be very amenable to do what they can to assist. I know I would.

  13. Great topic! All throughout my life I've encountered rude people here or there. I believe that the people that were rude before mobile devices became commonplace are the same people that are rude now with their cell phones and such.

  14. Earlier today I commented over at Aidan's blog about how invaluable modern technology is for long-distance families. And now here I am agreeing with you also about its more menacing qualities.

    I think BLW is right. People who were considerate before will continue to be. People who weren't may just further entrench themselves in their gadgets to avoid you in your baby-wrangling moment of need.

    I think it's important to make sure that technology and consideration don't become mutually exclusive. Now, how to go about that little task, I'm not entirely sure.

  15. I think and talk (okay, complain) about this all the time. It isn't rudeness that concerns me so much as the inattention, the "tuning out." Too much oblivion!
    I work with teenagers on a campus of college students, so I get my fill of headphones and accidental jostling and overhearing what's being overshared. But I worry most about what will happen to the types of communication I love - verbal, face-to-face, or even words so well thought out that texting them wouldn't be more convenient than sending a letter.
    But in the grocery, I always end up speaking with at least one stranger who has a question about the produce or a comment about my son or his or hers. That's always nice and encouraging.
    No twittering for me (my husband still wants to get rid of his mobile). But I'm very aware that technology is leaving me behind!

  16. I was in the supermarket the other day chatting on my cellphone. It was one of those calls I just couldn't get off. I woman looked at me and motioned for me to lower my voice.

    She was right. I was intruding on her life by my obnoxious display of voice clutter.

    I love your post and hope that people remember that simple manners and courtesies are important in a world of filled with lots and lots of outside noise.

  17. You took the post right outta my head! I was just thinking about this and how I need to be more mindful of MY time tuned in. Great post!

  18. I'm impressed that you have managed to stay clear of facebook. (I'm addicted.) I also found this issue of connectedness difficult while teaching--students can't help but text throughout class. Very few people have enough control to avoid finding out who buzzed them. Another instance of concern for me was when my husband got me an iPhone for my birthday. On the one hand, it's amazing to be able to read news, check facebook and email, even read books and listen to an iPod all from one small piece of equipment. But I knew that it meant I'd be pulling it out too often and shutting out the world around me. I told him not to get one for me, but he did anyway, and I love it. But then, I also hate it....

  19. I still only have a basic phone, not even with a camera ;) I hate texting on it because it's a painful process...
    But I'm eying all those fancy phones. But part of me keeps thinking that if I bring one of those into my life, I won't be able to get away from the online world. Which sometimes is really nice to do (no matter how much I love you guys! And yes, I just got my BlogHer ticket!)

  20. Before technology I would have had my eyes in a book or puzzle game. I've always been a little oblivious.

    I've also always believed that technology is meant to make life easier and better. If it isn't then there is no need to use it (and there have been times I've given up some "new" thing because it was more of a hassle than not). I love my data plan on my cell phone. We pull it out google all sorts of questions that come up while the family is driving in the car.

  21. I am heavily into the internet social networking. I blog, I tweet, I'm on FB, I own a Blackberry. However, I don't text and walk at the same time. It's important to me to be aware of my surroundings..and that guy on line at the bank loudly discussing yesterday's game? Obnoxious. I can only assume ppl don't want to hear my private discussions, either. In the car, I only use my cell on long commutes (it does make the time go faster) but never when da boys are with me. Do ppl use their devices as a cop-out to common courtesy? Absolutely. But, I think most of those ppl were self-absorbed even before they got their phones.
    Self-regulation....that's all I'm saying...

  22. Kristen, So interesting. My favorite is when I'm in a restaurant and there's a husband and wife seated near me and both are on their cell phones talking to different people. At least I'm assuming their not talking to eachother (that would be nuts, right?). My BlackBerry drives my husband crazy but it's made my life a lot better in that my emails are readily accessible, I'm not missing info from school and friends, and, okay, I just love it!

    I have one absolute rule, though. When I pick up the kids each day, I don't answer the phone at all unless it's my husband and brief. No chatting with the kids in the car. They get a mom who's actually listening to them, for a while at least.

  23. Okay...what the frack? My comment went to cyberspace! Ack. I don't have the time to recreate...let's just say Kudos to you, Kristen, for tuning in to so many people and touching them with these very simple, yet heavily-weighted, subjects...

    (original comment was lengthy and much more profound, of course)

  24. ok, mine just went into cyberspace too. so, I'll just say great topic. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  25. This is my first visit here, and I'm glad I stopped by.

    Great post. You bring up some very good points.

    The Internet, cel phones, techonology in general are not inherently bad. It is the way we use them and the frequency of that use that is the rub.

    Do we tune out our children's questions or Tweet, FB, text through our children's home work time with us? Or are we present? The same could be said at any stage in our lives, and at any place: in an airport, church, school, birthday party, date night, etc.

    I think cel phone self-control courtesy would help the world at large. It all starts with us, being consciously present in the moment and not texting or cel phone talking just to fill the air.

    Another Great American Issue is to appear "busy." Most of us think it's good, especially while in public. And to sit and observe, think, muse, meditate is...maybe weird. (it's not! ;)

    What can we do? Good point. We can start now with how we treat others and how we are present in our daily activities. Courtesy is never out of style.


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