The mobile phone reigns supreme on the communication hierarchy.
People, even when animated by the furore of great conversation, hear the classic sound of their iPhone and begin foraging in their pockets or handbags as they simultaneously attempt to maintain eye contact. They find their mobile and may as well put their hand in your face to halt you in your conversation tracks. They answer, “hello?” and you wonder who it is that’s so important they’ve been allowed to interrupt the flow of our good ol’ fashion, face to face, interaction.
“I’ve just got to get this”, “sorry”, “this won’t take a minute” are some of the excuses on offer to make up for pushing us to the bottom of their interest ladder. You wait silently. The lucky recipient of the phone call answers as they wonder what mystery awaits them on the other end of the receiver. Oh the suspense! What has the person trying to call me got to say to me that makes me so important, that they’ve called ME!
Alternatively, a customer hands a book to me at the counter. They smile, I smile, “how are you?” I say. “Good, thanks, how’s your day going?” A lot of people don’t like small talk. I enjoy a dose of mundane dialogue if I’m in the mood. I especially enjoy it with those who say, “this book is for my wife, it’s a surprise, could you wrap it?”, or “I just want my kid to get into books, he’s really advanced, like seriously advanced, for his age, what do you recommend?” or, “have you read this one?” But sometimes, mid-flow in one of those rare one to one interactions, their phone rings. The finger goes up, the face squints in apology, “sorry” is mouthed. What the actual fuck, I think, as I smile “oh, it’s not a problem (that you’ve just interrupted our conversation to answer your phone)”. They then talk loudly, letting us all know that they’ve received a call – an important phone call – they’re very important.
Who could this possibly be! Perhaps an appointment they’ve made is being cancelled? Or someone’s telling them something terrible has happened?! Maybe this will be an invitation to one of those parties they long for? Oh. My. God. Are they about to discover the meaning to life?! Or, maybe their going to get what they’ve been waiting for forever – they’ve won something!
If it should be a call that holds the meaning to life, or an amendment to an appointment, it sure as shit can wait until the conversation being had face to face is over. Low and behold we can even let the phone ring and ring and ring and, in this modern day and age, return the call at a more convenient time.
The mobile can rudely reroute our attention from one person to another without any of the social norms and practices that we consider to be polite. This doesn’t generally happen in real life. If we saw someone we knew while we were already in conversation with someone else we would never squint our eyes apologetically, mouth “sorry”, tell them “just hold on a minute” while we turn our back on them and start a whole new conversation with someone else. We’d probably make it a threesome and introduce one another, because that’s polite. When did the mobile phone make its way to the top of the communication hierarchy and develop it’s own impolite etiquette code?
We may even be on the phone and notice another call coming through. We say, “oh, sorry, Susan’s trying to call me. I’ll call you back”. You promptly end and accept only to find out that she wants to know if you’re free on Friday, which you realise could have waited. Or, maybe we’re having coffee with a friend, a lunch, a dinner, or it’s a mere interaction with a familiar face on the sidewalk, when the high pitched pang of Facebook messenger, the screech of an iMessage, or the twang of a Whatsapp reverberates off of the cotton in their pocket, because that’s where these interruptions live these days.
We watch as they can’t let go of the fact someone is trying to make contact with them. They think about it, they get confused as the cogs turn in their iGen brain, wondering when they’ll get a sneaky opportunity to see who it is. You watch their hand, as if in slow motion, make its way into their pocket. They slide their phone out, only half-way though so as not to appear too rude, and they quickly divert their eyes to their phone screen as they assess the importance. Face to face contact is temporarily pushed aside. They hope you didn’t catch them looking. But we caught you looking. A rude interlude takes place in your conversation but the second half when you’re welcomed back into their attention span has lost the sense of furore that it had in the first, and you don’t feel like being second best. Perhaps this is only true to those whose love language is quality time? Perhaps not.
Imagine if we knew that the person Whatsapping us could see those little blue ticks and we didn’t have a heart attack because we knew that they knew that we’d seen their message. But we’re in control of our device, it doesn’t control us. We choose to reply in a day or two. What if they knew we’d silenced their call because we decided to call them back later. That’s if we had the courage to leave it that long, because we have a subconscious fear ingrained within our 21st Century consciousness that they know we’ve read the message or we’re sat by our phone and we haven’t responded and therefore we’re ass holes. But, who really cares, respond when it’s convenient and silence the call. Don’t let it take you out of the present moment as you recharge your face to face interaction batteries. I’ve learnt that eventually you just become someone who used to reply immediately to someone who doesn’t.