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Blog // Technology
May 26, 2016

Do iPhones Ruin Our Conversations

It’s a familiar sight. Sit down to a meeting, a coffee, drinks, or maybe even a meal, and you’ll see people place their iPhones, or other devices on the table. Some make a gesture to good manners, either by placing the device screen down, or turning it to silent mode. Most assume the presence of […]

It’s a familiar sight. Sit down to a meeting, a coffee, drinks, or maybe even a meal, and you’ll see people place their iPhones, or other devices on the table. Some make a gesture to good manners, either by placing the device screen down, or turning it to silent mode. Most assume the presence of smartphones isn’t a problem.

Smartphones And Conversations

Wondering about this, I polled my Twitter followers, to ask what their behaviour was. 46% admitted to having their phones on the table during coffee or dinner conversations. They were evenly split between those leave it face up and those who turn it face down.

Of course, this an inexact study. For one thing, I’m in Japan, where smartphone use in social settings is a little more restrained than what I’ve seen in Hong Kong, or the US, for example. Folks here still turn their phones off when going into cinemas!

But, it still seems commonplace for smartphones to be visible in social and work situations while people talk. A recent study suggests we might want to rethink that behaviour.

The iPhone Effect

Researchers from Virginia tech (Shalini Misra, Lulu Cheng, Jamie Genevie, and Miao Yuan) looked at how the presence of iPhones effected the conversations in 100 pairs of test subjects. They found the presence of an iPhone lowered the quality of the conversations, it also seemed to make people less empathetic. The phone didn’t ring, beep or buzz, it was just there. It’s mere presence was enough to effect the participants.

There’s already been plenty of studies into how distraction and divided attention lowers our performance and ability to notice details around us. But, those problems arise when we are fully engaged with our smart devices. Most of us know what it’s like to struggle through a conversation with someone who keeps staring at every notification that pops up on their device, or worse, who stops you mid sentence so they can type out a reply.

What about when the smartphone is just sitting there?

Well, it seems that even if the device doesn’t chime for our attention, we are still acting like it might, waiting, or maybe even hoping for the disruption to come.

“In an in-depth observational study of coffee shop patrons preceding this field experiment, we found that, on average, many individuals in pairs or small groups checked their phones every 3 to 5 min regardless of whether it rang or buzzed… Recent studies have found that a large percentage of individuals experience what has been termed as the “phantom vibration syndrome”—perceived vibrations from a device that is not really vibrating.”

iPhones As Maps To Ourselves

Our smartphones have become far more than just electronic devices, they are like a map to our relationships, our interests, hobbies, passions and desires and a network of people we might never even meet. We might see words or pictures pop up on a screen, but what these often short messages point to is something deeper; a sense of connection, or belonging that transcends our physical place in the world.

Few of us stop to consider how vast this universe is. As an exercise, just try mapping out all the voices you hear, see and swipe past every day. Most of us struggle just to get our head around the emails we receive everyday, let alone the vast sea of faces on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other digital platforms we might experience.

Only a few years ago, most of our social lives followed a familiar pattern: an expanding circle through childhood, that peaked in high school, or maybe university, gradual but steady tapering down as the responsibilities of adulthood, work, relationships, family, left us with less time to invest in making new friends, or sustaining a big circle of acquaintances.

But now, we can take even the smallest amounts of available time to tap into a vast parallel network of digital relationships, or use those digital connections to sustain real world relationships. For most people, there online universe is well curated, full of channels, pages, and sites that have already been preselected to match their interests, tastes and even ideological preferences

Real World Conversations Are Not Like Online Ones

We all know that a lot can be said in just a few words sent via text or social media. But, real world human conversations are lot more complex than words on a screen. There’s a lot going on when we talk face to face, from subtle changes in the tone and volume of speech, to a rich palette of physical cues we might use, the way we sit, where and how we look, how we lean toward or away from people as we speak or listen.

Compared to scrolling through a social media platform for small things that will amuse or entertain us, this real world conversation stuff is challenging! Online, if a friend starts writing about something that doesn’t interest you, it’s easy to just surf away and find something more entertaining.

But, in person you have to listen, or feign interest, or do the work of moving the conversation onto a more interesting subject. It’s no wonder we look down at our devices hoping for digital salvation, for an easier way to feel connected.

Being Aware Of The iPhone Effect

We’ve all seen the couple who spend an entire coffee visit staring, not into each other’s eyes, but into their respective devices. Or, the family in a restaurant who only occasionally peer up from their screens to see if their food has arrived. Or the social bore, who can’t seem to sustain even the most basic of conversations without having to check after every beep of their phone.

It’s easy to look at these kinds of behaviour and say they’re not ideal, even if we’ve all been guilty of them at some time. Most of us have come to the realisation that we owe the people in our lives more of our attention.

But, this study should encourage us to ask a deeper question, is the mere presence of smartphones enough to distract us?

It might be time to rethink where we put our phones, especially during those moments in life when the quality of our conversation really matters.


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