Probably most people alive today have experienced being with someone and some buzz or barely audible beat suddenly takes the person we’re talking to off into some other world – rude, right? Or a group of friends gathers somewhere sociable and all of them have their eyeballs and attention riveted on that little slab of technology, texting to someone, somewhere else, instead of engaging with the people right in front of them, silly, right?
Well I’ve been irritated by this too but at the same time was recently reminded of the fiendish old device, the phone, and how it too, for decades ruled our lives. I was sitting outside with friends in a pleasant evening but one person was expecting a critical call, so about every 10 minutes, when yet another telemarketer called, the pleasant socializing was interrupted. The electromagnetic leash yanked our companion away for something more important than being with us.
Ever since old Alexander invented the phone, but especially before caller-id and marketer pollution, we’ve been imitating Pavlov’s dogs, slobbering our way to answer that call. It must be something important, good or some disaster. It is definitely not something that can wait. And with mobile phones, at least shortly after they became commonplace, now that ringtone was everywhere and interrupted everything. So being a slave to texting is nothing new.
When I was telecommuting to the Bay Area for my job, my team, from all sorts of places, would gather in a conference room for extended meetings. It cost our company tens of thousand $s to get us all in that room and we only saw each other F2F about once a quarter. But let a phone ring and the pause button was pushed. The rest of us would either get to listen to half a phonecall or the very very important person would exit the room to go speak in private to the very very important disembodied person projected through the ether. Of course the first person to do this, usually the ranking person, then gave the signal it was OK for everyone else to join the fun. Now everyone (but me, since I hate phones) has now disappeared into the twilight zone for a while. Out of the 12 or so hours we’d spend together, probably only 4 hours of it was actually being together, agendas unfinished. Phone breaks were more common and time-consuming than even the inevitable biobreaks. Yuck, I really hate phones, except of course when I’m the one calling.
And when mobile phones were still relatively new and texting was still not that common, at least among adults, how many times, waiting in some line, taxiing to or from the gate, at a party, in a meeting, anywhere, we were subjected to half a phone call, usually louder than it needed to me, as strangers shared the trivia of their life with their proximate captive audience. I knew my seatmate’s kids better than they did by the end of a long flight.
No, despite occasional pique, I’ll take texting. Even with ringtones and caller-id to filter a phone demands immediate attention. You have to answer the damned thing just to tell the other person you can’t talk, but of course they said, “just a one thing” and the interruption is still there. Most people can not listen to a ringing phone and not get itchy. One of my favorite movie scenes was Network where Faye Dunaway and William Holden are having this critical moment of their relationship discussion and the phone rings – Faye’s character can not resist it and Holden knows their life is over. I hate the phone.
Texting is not so demanding or jarring an interruption. You actually can just sneak a peak and find out whether it demands your attention. You can delay briefly before responding, perhaps until a better break moment in the F2F situation. You can actually multitask, a bit, and sneak in a reply without totally ignoring those in front of you. Texting, while even more frequent than calls, is somewhat less disruptive.
So if you think texting is rude, remember the last time you were with someone and their phone rang, or the doorbell rang, or some flunky came in a meeting to deliver a message (remember all those little pink slips, back in the days where women had to settle for being men’s gophers and they answered your phone but discretely brought in the message slips, or better yet, waiting outside until the biobreak). No, sometimes when there is something new we blame it for a new violation of social protocol but the good old days before the new gadget were not so great either.