I was out for dinner with a friend when I noticed a couple at the next table—she was holding her phone and rapidly firing off a text or a tweet, while her date dutifully chewed away at his burger.
“How rude,” I thought, “to be typing a conversation with someone who isn’t there, when you’re sitting across from someone you could have a real conversation with.”
The opinionated little character in my mind jumped up on her soapbox and began preaching against the potential evils of mobile technology—how our addictions to technology, social media and instant gratification are slowly eating away at the most important “real” relationships in our lives.
Ten minutes later, I felt that familiar buzz in the back pocket of my jeans, offered a quick apology to my friend, and pulled out my phone. “But this is different,” I muttered to the still-preaching soapbox character in my head. I, after all, had been waiting to hear back from my brother so we could finalize holiday travel plans.
But, of course, it isn’t “different.” Or another way to look at it is that it’s always different—there’s always some explanation, excuse or imperative when it comes to our own cell phone use. The reality is that most of us find it almost impossible to create personal policies we can stick to, let alone a broader social etiquette everyone can agree on.
The easiest response to this conundrum is taking the Wild West approach: It’s a whole new world, where personal freedom trumps rules. But new territory comes not just with new opportunities, but new responsibilities, as well. Today’s college students, as the first generation of adults who grew up with cell phones, are in a unique position to help shape how we can make the most of technology without sacrificing our face-to-face connections.
So what should the etiquette be around the use of our mobile devices? And is etiquette always shaped by rules, or can it be shaped, instead, by desired outcomes?
I think focusing on our desired outcomes best suits the rapidly changing nature of technology (as well as what it means to be 20, and what it means to be a New Testament Christian). In other words, it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that truly inspires and changes us.
When it comes to cell phone use—whether you’re in class, hanging out with a group of friends, or sitting next to grandma at the Thanksgiving dinner table—here are some outcomes we might strive for, along with some thoughts about how those outcomes might shape our actions.
One way to think about compassion in our day-to-day lives is being more tuned in to the needs of those around us than we are to our own needs. When it comes to our interactions with others, does your curiosity about how people are responding to your most recent Facebook status trump your curiosity about what’s going on in the life of the friend you’re meeting for coffee? Does the urgent buzzing of your phone trump the urgency of the very real world that’s carrying on, all around you?
2. Effective communication.
Whether we’re responding to a Facebook status, sharing an opinion on Twitter, or in a conversation with someone sitting across from us, we need to keep in mind how powerful words are. They have the capacity to hurt others and cause enormous rifts between people and groups. They also have the capacity to help us grow—to increase understanding and healing, to encourage and offer grace. When our communications are divided and distracted between too many people and platforms, we’re not able to give any of our communications the attention they require.
We all like to think we are in control—especially over something like our pocket-sized electronics. But there’s something about the intrusive, insistent nature of these devices that often results in their control over us. Whether we’re constantly checking our phones out of habit or compulsive curiosity, it seems clear that most of us, most of the time, are being ruled by our devices rather than the other way around. If that sometimes feels like the case for you, perhaps occasionally turning your phone completely off, or leaving it at home, is the best way to show it who’s boss.
The people around us don’t always have urgent demands or needs, but they’re still people who deserve our attention and respect. The professor who stayed up late the night before preparing her lecture; the dad who got up early on Saturday to make his family breakfast; the little sister who is telling a story about soccer practice; the barista who is making our coffee—they all are real people who are trying to connect with us in some way. When we pick up our phones—even if we tell ourselves it’s for a good reason—we are shutting down that connection and telling others that their efforts are not valued.
Part of what giving grace to others is all about is extending the benefit of the doubt—trusting that others are doing the best they can in the moment, and that we don’t know all of the circumstances. Grace involves being less demanding, less accusing. It means not taking things personally, and accepting that everyone can’t be perfect all the time. We need to offer grace when we text someone and don’t get an immediate response, and when we’re sitting with people who are distracted by their phones. It’s possible, when it comes to our cell phone use, that grace is the most important outcome to strive for—both in what we communicate and how we communicate. What might like look like for you?