Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Brave New World of Smartphone Manners

smartphone mannersDespite the warnings, our basic human courtesies are not likely to be eroded by smartphones, nor will they be salvaged by quickly decided Emily Post-type rules.

Like other social norms, smartphone manners will likely evolve from the complex social group process underscored by the intellectual, physical,and psychological needs that drive us.

There was a time when it was in good taste for a gentleman to reach across the dinner table to light a lady’s cigarette. Have you seen etiquette of that kind lately?

A recent New York Times article reported on the behavior of attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive. In this arena, tech pros and professionals were reportedly on phones everywhere from the elevator to the dais. What is striking is that the appeal by one of the keynote speakers to put down the devices when interacting and give back the respect owed to each other was met with thunderous applause.

More striking is the fact that within minutes — everyone was back interacting with one eye on their phone and one thumb busy working!

In terms of group process the behavior actually makes sense.

  • In subtle and complex ways, a group will resist change even as it is trying out the limits of new behavior.
  • It will go through many cycles of idealization, group pressure, critique and differentiation before there is an eventual integration of group norms, workable for the members and the group.

In the case of smartphones the group process is complicated by the impact of evolving technology itself.

  • We are struggling to hold on to a known way of relating while being impacted by the seductive power of information, the neurological stimulation of novel advances and the narcissistic gratification of  instant attachment.
  • We are trying to define smartphone manners even as our obsession with smartphones often distracts us from our connection with others – and maybe ourselves.

Self-reflection can often offer perspective into our participation in changing social norms. Turning the lens on social situations, what I observe in myself and others surprises me. Perhaps it reflects the push and pull of an evolving process.

Smart Enough to Defer to the Smartphone?

I was recently at dinner with four friends when we were stumped by the date of an early James Bond movie. No sooner did we start “thinking out loud” together, than two of my friends wiped out their smartphones to race for the answer. The discourse stopped. We waited. If anyone wanted to try to come up with the answer, they remained quiet. No one complained. “Oh yeah- that’s right!” we responded to the date. Did our intrigue with technology or subtle group pressure undermine our mutual problem-solving exchange?

Is Everyone On Call?

Yes. With the exception of a few people wise enough to have answering services that direct us to the nearest emergency room – everyone is on call. “I need to take this call!” Rarely have I said, nor have I heard others say, “Please don’t.”

Not only are we complicit with this level of responsiveness, we often unwittingly encourage it, “Isn’t that your phone?”  The fact that designer rings can be anything from a favorite Sinatra song to our dog barking, makes it clear that we like hearing our phone ring, we expect others to hear it and we plan to answer.

Why Would We Want To Be On Call?

Learning theory might suggest that all we need are a few emotionally charged calls – be they emergencies, romantic invitations or business deals to condition us to keep on checking. Intermittent re-enforcement schedules are very difficult to extinguish.

What Happened to Call Waiting?

While we are all willing to wait while the person next to us answers the phone, there is no longer call waiting for callers. Most of us expect to get through. Our illusion is that if we need the other – we can reach him/her. “Where can he be? He has to have his phone with him.”

The clash that I have seen couples face is often one that involves a blurring of personal and work boundaries. It is one that will be increasingly addressed by partners and colleagues.

  • “Can’t you just read my text no matter what?”
  • “I am not going to take a call or read a text in the middle of a meeting.”

Do We Care Anymore About Privacy?

An interesting phenomenon about making a cell phone call is that as the caller we seem to be in touch with the person on the other end of the line and out of touch with reality. There is often a failure to realize how loud, how private and how many people are listening to our conversation.

I was recently sequestered on a train next to a man doing some work and a young woman on the phone next to him. When she began her rather emotional call, he and I exchanged glances of frustration. When she began to loudly list the reasons why she would not stay in the relationship with the person on the other end – I knew it was too late.  Colluding with her disregard of our privacy and hers I wondered –”How can you interrupt a call like this”?

Is the Smartphone the New Cigarette?

Could it be that the smartphone has replaced the cigarette as the socially condoned anxiety reliever, social barrier and time out?

Anxiety Reducer – Could it be that when anxious, alone, waiting, frustrated, tired we reach for the smartphone for an instant neurophysiological fix of distraction, connection or entertainment that lowers our anxiety or even our need to speak to anyone around us – much like lighting a cigarette once did?

Social Barrier -You may have noticed that whereas smartphone users seem to have to have little hesitancy taking out phones to check, scroll or text regardless of who is talking, few will interrupt another user busy texting, reading or talking on a cell phone. No need to stare ahead if you don’t want to speak, or find a place to light a cigarette to be alone – few will interrupt you on your phone.

Time Out In the venues where phones cannot be used or in the personal or professional situations that preclude use, you find the hallways or entrance gatherings filled with people taking a time out to check their phones- it is vaguely familiar.

Finding Our Way in Different Ways

Will we find a way to hold on to respect for each other despite conflicting and surprising behavior associated with smartphones? Yes, I think we will eventually find a place to land together.

A glimpse of this was recently seen when Dr. Jeffrey Kleinberg, the President  of the American Group Psychotherapy Association gave his inaugural address. He looked out into an audience of close to 900 group therapists and said “Will everyone please turn on their cell phones and electronic devices…I’m just not sure how interesting I’m going to be tonight!” – The group was his.

Photo by Leyla Arsan, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.