Virginia Tech researchers sought to determine what actually happens to conversations when mobile phones are introduced. They found that even when a phone isn’t making a noise and is only in eyesight, conversations are diminished. The mere presence of the phone sitting on the table draws attention away from the conversation. Our attention is subtly drawn outward and away from the other person; we can miss facial expressions, tone, and other cues that have significant meaning.
Even when a phone is in sight, sitting silently, our conversation is diminished.
The study concluded that conversations without a mobile phone in sight were seen as superior and included higher levels of empathy. This finding was consistent across age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.1
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, has been one of the most active and vocal researchers in this area. An early voice in the digital culture conversation, Turkle was heralded in the 1990s as an advocate who truly understood technology’s potential. In her two most recent books, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle asserts that technology is harming our ability to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations. What’s at stake isn’t just how we talk, but how we understand one another as humans.
Turkle’s research explores how people spend more time connected to one another electronically, yet say they are lonelier, more emotionally disconnected, and anxious. Online, we present a sanitized, curated, edited version of ourselves through email, text messages, and social media. People can choose to be focused elsewhere any time they like, and opt-out of the most important events in their lives, especially difficult moments. Turkle discusses how it’s even common to see people on their phones at funerals.2
In her widely watched Ted.com talk, Turkle warns of the “Goldilocks effect,” where we have begun to prefer a safe distance from others: “not too close, not too far, just right.”3 Her research shows our dependence on technology is degrading our ability to empathize, supporting the Virginia Tech study’s hypothesis. We take ourselves out of difficult conversations—or any conversation—by diverting our attention. We fail to notice what needs to be seen.
We take ourselves out of any hard conversation by diverting our attention.
Turkle insists that we need to be present during the not-so-fun moments to show our humanity. These moments uncover who we really are and what matters to us. “Most important,” says Turkle, “we all really need to listen to each other, including the boring bits. Because it’s when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.”
It’s said that people have three core needs: to be seen, heard, and understood. Just in the act of being fully present, we are knocking off the first two. You can go a long way to being inspiring to another person just by showing up and being in the moment. By having a focused, real conversation, you are already standing out from the typical distracted half-conversations that make up the majority of our daily communications. And by being willing to hear the words and tone—and to see the other person’s nonverbal behavior—you open the door to deep, human connection.
Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day by Kristi Hedges. Copyright 2017, Kristi Hedges. Published by AMACOM.
1. Misra, S., L. Cheng, J. Genevie, and M. Yuan. “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” Environment and Behavior 48, no. 2 (2014): 275–98.
2. Davis, Lauren Cassani. “The Flight From Conversation.” The Atlantic, October 7, 2015; Price, Michael. “Alone in the Crowd.” American Psychological Association, June 2011.
3. Turkle, Sherry. “Connected, but Alone?” TED.com, February 2012. Accessed June 20, 2016. http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.
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