Back in 1975, singer-songwriter Paul Simon told us there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. But that was before we all had perpetual connectivity to every person, place and thing we ever knew or imagined through smartphones, tablets and other assorted Internet-connected devices.
Now there are plenty of new ways to leave your lover, as well as your friends, relatives, co-workers, customers and business associates. Just take a phone call in the middle of a meeting, text a friend during an intimate dinner or update your social media profile in the middle of a customer service interaction.
These random Electronic Displays of Insensitivity (EDIs) take a big toll on relationships, said David Maxfield, co-author of new research on Digital Divisiveness. "Maybe it's time to change our behavior," he said.
You Talkin' to Me?
Technology gives us speed, convenience and easier access to information than past generations could have imagined. But is faster and easier always an advantage -- or is it just an excuse to forget social norms?
Maxfield recalled straining to hear what a stranger was saying to him at an airport one day. "Then I realized he wasn't talking to me. He was wearing a headset," he said. "And while that situation was just surprising and weird, other times it can be much worse, from rude to disgusting."
Consider how you'd feel if you were attending a funeral for a friend — only to have a phone go off just as the casket was leaving the service. True story, claims study co-author Joseph Grenny.
"The ring tone was 'Gentlemen, start your engines!'" he said.
Grenny is a co-author of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, a book designed to help you understand what to say when stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. He's also a co-founder of VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah-based corporate training and leadership development company, where Maxfield serves as vice president of research.
So it's not surprising they were intrigued enough by the inescapable phenomenon of texting, talking, tweeting and generalized technology overload to dig deeper.
Technology has its place and an important one at that. But it fails when we use it to feed our fears and anonymity, or focus on its capabilities without regard to its limitations. It fails when we forget that it’s just a means to an end, not an end in itself. And it fails when we make it more important than the people around us.
That's what this new research on the effect of technology on relationships confirmed. A total of 87 percent of the 2,025 people responding to an online survey think intrusive or inappropriate use of technology is worse today than it was just a year ago. And 89 percent claim EDIs damage relationships. The study notes:
Nearly nine out of 10 people say that at least once a week, their friends or family stop paying attention to them in favor of something happening on their digital devices. And one in four say EDIs have caused a serious rift with a friend or family member."
Here, There, Everywhere
Maxfield likes to believe most people have a reliable moral compass, and understand things like common courtesy. But their actions suggest they have little regard for or are completely unaware of socially acceptable uses of technology, he continued.
More than 90 percent agree people should not answer text messages or check their social media profiles at the dinner table, while driving a car, during a religious service, while attending school or during a customer service interaction. But knowing and doing are two separate things, apparently. The study found:
- 93 percent of respondents said they regularly witness someone committing an EDI while driving a car
- 67 percent witness EDIs at the dinner table
- 52 percent witness EDIs during a customer service interaction
- 35 percent witness EDIs while at church
- 25 percent witness EDIs while in school
And what do many people do? "Nothing," Maxfield said. Specifically, one in three people admit to coping with EDIs by simply ignoring them.
Grenny thinks "it's time we learned to speak up and confront electronic displays of insensitivity so that civility and technology can peacefully coexist.”
Please Put Down the Phone
Short of prying a phone from a person's fingers, is there anything people can do to stem the epidemic of EDIs? Grenny suggested these best practices:
- Set expectations: Provide clear reminders about talking and texting expectations, a la Alamo Drafthouse
- Remove the temptation: Store cell phones in a basket outside the conference room or dining room to avoid interruptions.
- Model good behavior: Start each face-to-face interaction by stating your intentions to put your phone away and enjoy quality time with the other person.
You'll save yourself some anxiety if you take the high road, and assume the call your boss is taking right in the middle of your meeting is urgent. And recognize that some people are just hopeless. "If you’ve employed every reasonable tactic and the offender fails to comply, let it go," Maxfield said.
Sometimes you just have to move on — you know, leave your lover. Or whatever he is. And look on the bright side. If you end a relationship with a repeat EDI offender, and would like nothing more than to avoid running into him, there's an app for that.
Cloak uses location data to make it easier for you to avoid your connections. Sort of confirms that technology ruins relationships, doesn't it?
Title image by Adriano Castelli (Shutterstock).