Mobile phones and the dying art of conversation

Published 25 Feb, 2021 02:35pm
Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi

To experience a sense of belonging, to be seen, valued and heard, is one of the most fundamental desires of human beings. Yet, life in the 21st century — running around chasing heavy schedules, meeting targets and deadlines — has sabotaged meaningful connections in our lives.

Modern-day living with smartphones and social media has further cemented this loss. Regardless of where you look, be it at the local dhaaba (roadside café) in Lahore, at a shopping mall in the buzzing metropolis of Karachi, or halfway across the world on the streets of downtown Toronto, people are guilty of what has been described as ‘phubbing’.

The term, to put it quite simply, means ‘phone snubbing’ i.e., the act of snubbing someone in a social setting in favour of your mobile phone. As sad as it may seem, the phenomenon is prevalent the world over without exception. Numerous studies have shown that it creates a barrier to meaningful communication, leading to significantly lower relationship satisfaction and overall individual well-being.

Increasingly people now turn to their phones to de-stress or take a break from work, and it is turning into a serious addiction: mobile phone addiction statistics found that over 70 percent of smart phone users sleep with their phone within immediate reach, instinctively picking them up first thing after they wake up. They also do it countless times during the course of the day, to scroll through messages, get news updates, catch up on social media, play games, watch videos, listen to podcasts or music, or shop. And the list goes on.

We seem to be powerless against this compulsive need to tap, swipe and scroll, which has spiralled out of control, taking over us completely. On being asked about their incessant need for connectivity at all times, university students invariably had the same answer: “A constant fear of missing out prevents me from disengaging with my phone,” says *Sara, an undergraduate student at York University. “I need to see every notification as it happens.”

We talk and chat, often over text or Whatsapp messages interspersed with multiple emojis that are mostly mundane and superficial, but we hardly seem to converse anymore. We often avoid having longer conversations, and don’t give enough time and effort to understand the people who live and work around us. Surely there must be some simple, yet effective, measures we can undertake to try and bring our conversational skills back to life.

The first crucial step is the realisation that this widespread tendency for phubbing has spiralled out of control and something needs to change. We cannot continue to go down this path, being sucked in further and further into the hypnotising world of Whatsapp, Instagram feeds, Snapchats and Tik Tok videos.

A common complaint in many households is the lack of time partners have for each other, leading to feelings of neglect and loneliness. “My husband is so exhausted after work, all he wants to do is unwind on the sofa while catching up with his social media feeds,” says *Myra, a 32-year-old magazine editor. “Hardly a word is exchanged between us.”

Recognising the problem is the necessary first step towards helping us find a solution. One must set time limits for mindless scrolling and social media in general, and strictly follow them, by putting those screens away once the time is up.

In The Pursuit of Attention, sociologist Charles Derber shares the results of fascinating research in which hundreds of face-to-face interactions were studied by researchers, revealing how hard people tried and vied for attention. Most people struggle with what he termed as ‘conversational narcissism.’ In other words, the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to one’s own self was blatantly apparent in most cases.

We need to curb this urge to dominate the narrative, being supportive instead, encouraging the other person to continue their story. Be curious and keep the momentum going by asking relevant questions. It lets the one sitting across know we’re listening and are interested in hearing more.

How many times have you gone out for lunch with a loved one, setting your phone on the table? You may have felt virtuous because you didn’t pick it up to check your messages, but the presence of that phone still undermines your connection with the person sitting across from you. Business executives, such as *Saad, 39, may resort to this behaviour on the pretext of not wanting to miss any important work-related call, message or email. “It is such an addictive habit and one that I find very hard to break,” he admits after a little probing.

My home was no exception, and I found myself experiencing this at meal times. Even if my children were not active on their phones, they kept them within reach, checking off and on, making it clear that being with the family wasn’t engaging enough to keep them happily occupied. Eventually, I had to enforce a rule of strictly no phones at the dining table!

Similarly, our attention is often sabotaged by the constant buzz of our own thoughts. We find ourselves busy thinking about the next thing to say, or planning what to prepare for dinner with that chicken when we get home. To be truly present in the moment, we have to drown out the noise, both within and around us. Try starting your day with a quick three to five minute meditation or simply sit in silence. A few minutes of silence, or at least quiet, every morning will give us a chance to reset and be more receptive.

And most importantly, we need to constantly remind ourselves that effective communication is a two-way street, requiring a lion’s share of listening, more so than speaking. Perhaps that is why we have naturally been endowed with ‘one tongue but two ears’ so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

Yet, despite being aware of its importance, we gradually seem to be losing the art of listening well, or to use the term coined by psychologist Carl Rogers, the art of ‘active listening’. The term encompasses much more than passively hearing what is said: it means showing that one cares and is interested in what the other person thinks. By observing nuances and non-verbal cues in conversation, being able to understand even what is not explicitly expressed.

As previously mentioned, the fast-paced lifestyles of today, coupled with the constant presence of mobile phones and social media have led to us being short on attention and patience. It is an urgent need of the times to make a conscious effort to restore that personal connection with the people who are important to us, leaving behind our own agendas and listening wholeheartedly. The pandemic has served as an eye-opener, bringing about the restoration of appreciation, appreciation of what really matters — our relationships and enjoying the pleasures of normal moments.

More often than not we just want to talk and be heard. That’s truly what our heart desires. Connection. It makes us feel special and valued. In a world with billions of people, we matter.

*The writer is based in Toronto, Canada, where she studied Cognitive Science * Names changed to protect privacy

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, February 21st, 2021