Keep Your Hands Still When I'm Talking to You

Imagine you are at a party and the person in front of you is not really listening to you. Yes, she is responding vaguely to your remarks or nodding sometimes, but for the most part she is looking beyond you for something or someone more interesting.

Here’s the funny part: If she is looking over your shoulder, she is ill-mannered. If, however, she is looking into a smartphone in her hand, she is not only well-mannered. She is a wired, well-put-together person.

Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.


At the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas, almost everyone walked or talked with one eye, or both, on a little screen. We were side by side, but really individually alone. Instead of meeting flesh-and-blood human beings, we were texting each other. Waiting in line became one more chance to check in digitally, instead of an opportunity to meet someone you didn’t know.

Mobile connectedness has undermined fundamental human politeness.

“When people are out among other people they need to just put everything down,” said Anthony DeRosa, a big presence on Twitter and Tumblr. “It is fine when you’re at home or at work when you’re distracted by things, but we need get back to respecting each other when we are together.”

Perhaps somewhere along the way toward the merger of the online and offline worlds, we have all stepped across a line without knowing it. As De Rosa put it: “I’m fine with people stepping aside to check something, but when I’m standing in front of someone and in the middle of my conversation they whip out their phone, I’ll just stop talking to them and walk away. If they’re going to be rude, I’ll be rude right back.”

William Powers, the author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” a book about getting control of your digital life, came away from the conference thinking he had witnessed “a gigantic competition to see who can be more absent from the people and conversations happening right around them. Everyone in Austin was gazing into their little devices — a bit desperately, too, as if their lives depended on not missing the next tweet.”

Where other people saw freedom — from the desktop, from social convention, from the boring guy in front of them — Mr. Powers saw “a kind of imprisonment.”

“There is a great deal of conformity under way, actually,” he added.

And therein lies the real problem. When someone you are trying to talk to ends up getting busy on a phone, the most natural response is not to scold, but to grab your own phone. It’s mutually assured distraction.


(Excerpt, David Carr, The New York Times)