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Against Social Multitasking: Be Where You Are

This article was written by in Society. 13 comments.


I had family visiting from California this weekend, and was very glad to be able to take time off from work and everything else just to be able to spend it with them. It’s precious time I’ll always remember.

In the midst of our happy chatter over brunch this morning at a great local diner, however, I noticed something which made me incredibly sad. Seated at the table adjoining ours was a mother and daughter, both facing each other, but not in communication in the least. As my family laughed and talked, I noticed the quiet blanketing their table, the pretty but sad face of the daughter staring blankly at Mom, waiting for the conversation that never came.

Mom was curled around her cell phone as she dined, glancing up only occasionally. I actually commented on her behavior at one point to my party, though I doubt she heard me, engrossed as she was in the apparently fascinating world of T-Mobile.

At the end of their meal, Mom actually snapped her fingers in her daughter’s face as she tossed her the credit card, never ceasing her other conversation. Daughter trotted off to pay the bill, and that was that, Sunday morning brunch concluded.

Instances like this remind me how important it is to be actively enjoying and experiencing the moments we’re paying for, no matter the scale. Cell phones, Blackberries and the like make it simple for anyone to reach us anywhere, but also for anyone to interrupt us in the middle of anything. Emergencies are one thing, but to turn aside from the ones you’re with to focus on someone else tells them they don’t rank too highly within your social hierarchy.

Why spend the time or the money to go out for a meal with a loved one at all if your actions are going to tell them they’re not significant enough to receive your undivided attention? Why lay money out for an experience if you’re not going to be fully there?

In our wired society, are we starting to lose our intimate and special connections to others in the name of being constantly connected? More and more, I feel plagued by this type of social multitasking, and don’t really see anyone benefiting from the extra money we spend to be eternally reachable. I’m sure employers love to be able to reach their staff at any time, especially when a server starts misbehaving, but when the workday’s limits dissolve, employee morale and productivity generally suffer.

How do you switch it off?

Published or updated November 11, 2007. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Along with her partner, Sasha owns and manage six residential rental units. Sasha endeavors to support the causes and organizations she believes in through more conscientious spending practices. View all articles by .

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Mrs. Micah

Wow. I don’t text, which probably helps. And I really dislike taking a call when out with someone but I will if there’s an emergency. Sometimes Mr. Micah looks rude because we’ll be walking and he’s on the phone with his little brother, but little brother’s in a crisis situation.

Otherwise, we just unplug–barely use our cell phones, don’t text, and it works just fine for us. :)

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avatar susan

Goodness, that is so awful!

In the interest of full disclosure, I am the last person in the U.S. without a cell phone. I see so many people in restraunts, cars, etc, totally ignoring the person thay are with and yacking with someone else. You can see that the other person knows they do not rate.

This happened to me when I was out with my niece. We were away from her cell for a couple of hours. When we returned to the car she immediately got on her phone. She talked with friends all the way home. It showed me that I was unimportant and probably most, that although she was an adult, she was very immature.

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avatar dave

Indeed. As an IT person, I’m probably viewed by family and friends as part of this overwhelming techno-connectedness. Yet I have only a cell phone and have repeatedly declined offers for a blackberry. At the age of 44, I’m dismayed by corporate culture and its insidious overreaching into the lives of it’s employees. The key missing ingredient is boundaries. The separation of work and home lives is healthly, and conversely the integration of all available time as both is harmful, imho. I do not use a cell phone without first deciding a call is necessary at that moment, nor without excusing myself to do so in a private place. Using a cell phone, or any other techno-connectivity device while in personal presence with others engaged is quite rude. Most of all, I lament the loss of common courtesy, and the lack of respect this shows others. Perhaps those of us who make a point of refusing to participate in the madness help to lead by example. Call me old fashioned, but I feel cell at dinner is trashy.

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avatar MikeVx

When out being social, I will usually answer the cell when it vibrates in case it is some sort of emergency, but if not, I quickly make the point to the caller that I am out visiting and they usually get the message and hang up. This strikes a balance of sorts, and most of my friends seem OK with this method of handling things. It helps that there have been a number of occasions over the years when the person calling was making a change in schedule for something later that day, those calls I completed, and no one has complained about that. As I am consistent with this, it seems to work.

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avatar H Lee D

This is one of my hot buttons.

It irritates me when people I am with use their cell phones, whether for talking or texting. If someone close is expecting a baby, or you’re expecting the results of someone’s surgery or something, I’ll give you a pass, but that’s about all.

Even to pick it up, chat for a minute and say it’s not a good time to chat is giving the person on the phone priority over the person you’re sitting with – you have voicemail. Turn the ringer off, turn the vibrate option off, turn the text received chime off, and be with the person you’re with.

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avatar Fecundity

That poor daughter. It must be awful to grow up knowing that you are less important to your mother than her friends or coworkers. I’m sure the mother didn’t mean to give that impression, but that’s the one I’d have received.

Turn the phone on vibrate. Glance at the caller ID if you must, though it would be better not to. If you have to pick it up, excuse yourself from the table and make it quick. People are having a meal with you to have a meal with you, not to hear your half of an undoubtedly boring conversation. Exceptions can be made for doctors, emergency workers, and soon-to-be fathers, but that’s about it.

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avatar Chris

Just reading that story made me mad! People on cellphones are my BIGGEST pet peeve. I see it all the time, and I don’t know how people can be so oblivious and rude. Even members of my family do it, though I always point it out to them and inform them that I’m leaving if they don’t hang up. When you are out to dinner with someone, shut the phone OFF.

I find that people don’t even comprehend how rude they are being. Most get defensive when you take offense at their action. There’s just something about a cellphone that can turn the nicest person into a social buffoon that you can only assume was raised in a barn.

I think the real problem is that cellphones enable us to pick and choose from what issues we need to deal with. The woman’s phone conversation was probably more important (at least to her) than a regular old brunch with her daughter, but that’s how cellphones are ruining basic etiquette. We are constantly connected, so naturally there is ALWAYS something more important than the task at hand. Thus, we go through our day treating those we are with immediately with rudeness.

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avatar Chris

Okay, I have to tell this story! My wife then-girlfriend used to do this to me all the time. At a restaurant having dinner, cell phone rings, she starts talking as if I wasn’t there. One time was the last straw, she sat on the phone talking to a friend about relatively nothing and when I finally protested, she excused herself and went into the bathroom to continue the conversation!

So…I just left. Actually, I just went outside, but struck up a conversation with the valet attendant for nearly an hour until she called me on my cell upset and wondering where I was. She had been sitting at the table alone, meals finished, waiter wondering when he was going to get paid, waiting for me. That really drove the point home.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

Tough love. You’ve gotta love it!

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avatar dan

I had a cell phone before cell phones were ubiquitous. I no longer have a cell phone and it’s liberating, not to mention cheaper.

It’s saddening to see such a lack of real human interaction when people choose to associate with digital devices more than their family.

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avatar Sarah

A friend and I just moved over 1000 miles away from our friends and family. Sometimes we’ll be out together and someone will call one of us on our cell, and we’ll put them on speaker and chat with them together. It’s not the same as hanging out with them in person, but it’s something.

So cell phone use is not necessarily an asocial or isolating experience. Remember, there is a real person on the other end.

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avatar Dave Farquhar

I saw this problem before people regarded it as a problem–Dad, being a doctor, carried a beeper during practically my entire childhood. We couldn’t go out to dinner or do anything else without that stupid beeper going off. Dad would have to get up, make a phone call, and more often than not he’d have to leave.

I went into IT and joined the ranks of the perpetually on-call. I was 24 when I realized I’d turned into Dad.

Today I don’t carry a pager. I own a cell phone but I don’t always carry it, it’s not always switched on when I do carry it, and I never bothered to set up the voice mail on it. If my job required me to carry a Blackberry, I would quit. Not only that, if I’m in the middle of something, I won’t necessarily drop it to answer my home phone when it rings–if it’s important, whoever it is can leave a message on my answering machine.

I spend way too much time in front of my e-mail, but if my wife and I are going to go somewhere, we’re going to enjoy ourselves without getting interrupted.

I think I’m much happier than the people I’ve observed answering their cellphones in the bathroom.

I might feel differently about all of this if I made $100,000 a year, but you can’t put a price on uninterrupted quality time with the people you care about.

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avatar Lazy Man

I’m never able to shut off with the exception of going to gym for a short period. It’s something that I really need to work on.

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