The other day I was in the mall running some errands and saw the cutest high school couple. Their arms were entwined – her right hand in his back pocket, his left in hers – as they walked arm in arm. Sweet. Brought back memories. Until I looked closer and saw that the boy was chit-chatting on his cell phone while he strolled with his sweetie. Sweetie had a look on her face which was one part “Woo-hoo! I’ve-got-a-boyfriend-look-at-me” and one part “When is he going to get off the phone?”
This brought to mind a trip to Disney World where I saw a father glued to his Blackberry while the family stood in a slow-moving line. The mother would try to engage him in a conversation with her and the kids and he would absently respond, “Uh, huh” or “Mmmm” whether or not those were relevant responses. Finally, the exasperated mother said, “Honey, we are on vacation. This is not your office. Put the Blackberry away.” It was as if he were coming out of a trance as he slipped it into his pocket. He was there, but not there. I wonder where he wanted to be.
Cell phones and Blackberrys have given us a way to be present physically but absent, practically. We’re here, but not here. And, for the sake of our relationships, I think it’s time we put the phone down, so we can be right here, right now.
Now, I’m no Luddite. I don’t hate technology. I like technology. In fact, I am a gadget girl. Give me a new electronic gizmo and I can spend hours noodling with it. I read about new cell phones, TVs, DVDs, computers, programs, cameras, PDAs – all that stuff. I’m an early adopter who enjoys finding new tools which allow me to do things more efficiently. Especially tools with cool little buttons that make noises and glow in the dark.
But cell phones and Blackberrys are everywhere, and steal our time and attention. They allow us to keep relationships at an arm’s length (the length of the arm holding the phone, bent to our ear, in fact). They help us stay superficially involved. It’s as if we’re asking for credit for hanging out with one person while we’re really hanging out with whoever’s on the other end of the phone.
When you’re there, but not there, you divide your attention so no one or nothing is getting all of you. Some of us seem to use the cell phone for precisely this reason. The distance provided by being on a call calibrates a relationship. It gives power to the person with the phone – they decide who can talk with whom, when. It provides a great excuse for emotional distance. I don’t have to be fully engaged in a difficult discussion with you because (saved by the bell!) my phone is ringing!
I tell my clients, “Look at how you’re spending your time and you will know where your priorities lie.” What are you telegraphing about your priorities when you interrupt a conversation with a real, live person to take a call from a person who’s not even there? How do you think the person you’re sitting across the table from, who you’ve effectively put on “hold”, feels? Important? Valuable? Relevant?
Take a minute to think about the times when you’re there, but not there. Gizmos and gadgets can create a false urgency in our lives. They decide so you don’t have to. But they can’t have relationships for you.
Setting boundaries around when you answer calls, or check email, can help get you started on building quality relationships with people in your life. Need some help finding appropriate boundaries? Here are some ideas:
- No answering the phone when there’s only one other person present – say your spouse, your child, your parole officer
- No checking email in church or at your child’s play or during your performance review
- You might even consider – gasp – not taking your cell phone or Blackberry on vacation
“But, Michele!” you gasp. “I’m multi-tasking! Isn’t that what an effective person does?”
No. Multi-tasking is when you try to cram more into a minute than a minute deserves. Multi-tasking is what an overwhelmed, overstressed, anxious person does. A balanced person, present in the moment, actually does one thing at a time, devoting as much attention as needed to accomplish the task at hand.
Now, does that mean that if you leave a message for someone you can’t do a thing until they return your phone call? You certainly may do something else. But when they call you back, don’t check your email while you conduct your call.
Because you’ll be there, but not there.
“But, Michele!” you shout. “I’m very important! The office can’t do without me! I have to be in touch 24/7! I have to have my Blackberry.”
I know you are very, very important. But play a game with me, will you? Name a really important person in the world. OK – the Pope. Do you think the Pope carries a Blackberry? Does he check it during church? Does he answer his cell phone when he’s having audiences? Or hearing confession?
My guess is that the Pope knows what’s important. He knows the greatest gift you can give someone else is to be there with them. To hear them, to know them, to respect them, to be present right there, in that moment, with them.
The secret to happy lives and rich relationships has nothing to do with gizmos and gadgets – it has everything to do with you, and how often you can be right here, right now. Set your own priorities. Don’t let some electronic device serve as an artificial barrier to meaningful connection with others.
You owe it to yourself, and others, to be here, now.