Before smartphones

I’m one of those people who moans about overuse of smartphones in social settings. It’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: if you’re the one guy who’s got his smartphone out in a social situation, it’s great for you. Dip in and out of conversation with the people who are present, dip in and out of conversation with people who aren’t present. Lovely. But for every smartphone that gets pulled out, the social situation gets that bit less social. And if you’re the one person without a smartphone, it’s downright miserable.

There’s nothing new I have to say about this today. Certainly nothing that Sherry Turkle hasn’t already said better. I just wanted to share a memory. Today someone mentioned smartphones as a tool for amusing yourself when people are late for meetings, and that triggered a memory from the days before smartphones.

I used to work for a small non-profit organisation. Once we had an off-site meeting. Someone was coming to the meeting, a new potential volunteer. She texted me to say she was early. I was delayed, dealing with an urgent issue that had just blown up. So I sent an employee along ahead of me, saying something like:

“I’ve just got to deal with this. But listen, remember me telling you about Lucy? She’s got there early and I don’t want her to think we’re a bunch of flakes. You head over to the community centre ahead of me and I’ll be about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the community centre. Lucy (not her real name) and the employee were sitting in awkward silence. Turns out the employee had not even attempted to introduce himself or explain he was part of the organisation she was coming to meet. He had not apologised for my absence, explained my lateness or indeed mentioned me at all.

Lucy hadn’t tried to introduce herself either. She was slightly worried she was in the wrong building, but it hadn’t occurred to her to ask and it hadn’t occurred to my colleague to reassure her.

To sum up: neither had exchanged a word. Neither of them had even put the kettle on. Both of them just sat in silence next to each other for about ten minutes until I arrived, full of explanations and introductions, arms full of crisps and paperwork. My colleague had understood my instruction – “You head over to the community centre” – but he genuinely hadn’t grasped the implied instruction to greet Lucy and make her welcome. He was hurt when I asked him afterwards why the hell he hadn’t talked to her.

Now we have smartphones, maybe both of them would have been playing with Facebook or something. But the smartphones wouldn’t be the reason why they weren’t talking.

It’s unusual to find adults with so little social initiative, but there are more of them than you’d think. The younger ones hide behind smartphones, sure. But the older ones are perfectly capable of sitting in blank silence without any kind of electronic prop. I’m interested in the question of whether smartphones are training more people to avoid social initiative, but I wanted to share a story to prove they’re not the only problem.

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