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Is Texting the New Smoking?

PJAdvice columnist Belladonna Rogers on the powerful urge to stay in touch.

by
Belladonna Rogers

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September 27, 2011 - 12:05 am
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Dear Belladonna Rogers,

At a restaurant dinner with friends, I was looking forward to an enjoyable, sociable evening, only to find that one of my friends never stopped checking his emails while another took every cell phone call she received.  These were not emergency calls — I could understand those. These were simply the normal electronic clutter of everyday life. I’m 64 and my dinner partners were both in their late 20s. They’re former students of mine. Why bother to meet two friends at a restaurant if you can’t divorce yourself from your technology?

iWonder in Wisconsin

Dear iWonder,

What you describe can be summarized in five words: a generational clash of cultures.

In the culture of your generation, this conduct would be deemed rude. In the culture of many in their teens, 20s, and 30s, it’s par for the course.

For people who enjoy connecting with others — and some of the comments on a recent advice column made clear that there are many who do not — the generational divide is this: while younger people are happy to connect with others face-to-face and through technology simultaneously, their elders prefer to connect with their friends, family and colleagues either in person or technologically, but not both at once. When they socialize with younger people, they tend to expect undivided attention and feel insulted, as you did, when they don’t receive it.

By contrast, the majority of younger people, as well as the more tech-forward segment of people in their 50s and beyond, are comfortable with — and are far from offended by — multi-socializing, the act of enjoying the companionship of their friends, family, and colleagues both in person and through texts and cell calls, all at the same time, with no offense intended, nor any taken.

GENERATIONAL NORMS

Typically, but not universally, younger people take multi-socializing for granted. By and large, their elders are both less accustomed to it and far less tolerant of it.

The biggest problems arise when different generations gather together, or seek to communicate with each other, each with its own preferred tribal customs.

When young people, even your own children or grandchildren, behave as your friends did over dinner, you’re entirely justified in informing them that although such behavior may fly with their contemporaries, it doesn’t with their elders.

I recently spoke with a 31-year-old about how he copes with these matters. I was stunned to learn that when he cooks dinner for himself, he also watches the news on TV, listens to music on the speakers of his iPod “as background music for the news,” talks with friends via a Bluetooth earbud with his iPhone “so I can be hands-free,” while he reads and responds to emails on his laptop on the counter next to the stove. By my count, that’s six activities at once, five of them technology-based.

When he’s out with friends at a bar or restaurant, he assured me, all his friends text, accept calls, and even initiate calls during meals together and no one feels dissed or insulted in the slightest.

This young man is bright. But it isn’t his intelligence that separates him from members of his parents’ generation. What distinguishes his age cohort from that of his parents is that his generation has been multitasking with technology since childhood. Adding one more tech tool isn’t a major challenge for his age-mates or for those who are younger.

The compulsive urge for constant connection is not, however, confined to the young. In terms of etiquette, however, it is more universally accepted by the younger generation. Even so, here’s a report of a recent meeting of men and women in their 50s and 60s:

While it may be pervasive among the young, it’s all too prevalent among their elders, as well. I’ve observed it time and again: people answering cell calls in restaurants, talking at the top of their lungs on crowded buses, etc. The other day I invited our new CEO to dinner with the division I head, and one of my colleagues, a normally civilized person, whipped out his cellphone to check his email, surf the web, and goodness knows what else — at dinner with the new CEO. This need for constant communication, accompanied by faux sighs about the never-ending stream of emails, has become a cliché of our era and is redefining what good manners are, and in an ugly way. It may be a lost cause, but one can certainly teach one’s children what is acceptable and what is not, no matter how much technological temptation abounds.

THE WAY IT WAS

We could all, in theory, agree that the manners our parents and grandparents instilled in us require some modifications to accommodate the times. Many of us can remember when the family dinner hour was all but sacred. Most people didn’t think of calling their friends during a mealtime 60 years ago, except in an emergency.

Receiving a telephone call was an exciting event, not something that occurred every few moments. Women, who were advised not to initiate calls to men (too “forward”), yearned for the telephone to ring.

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Today, the concept of sacred time that cannot be interrupted by technology is now reserved to the religious. Those who don’t hold the Sabbath sacred receive and respond to emails and telephone calls almost 24/7.

ONE WAY TO UNDERSTAND THE URGE TO USE A SMART PHONE AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE

Although your young friends’ compulsion to use their smart phones at dinner was offensive to you, it might be helpful if you could think of their behavior as a contemporary equivalent of the habit of smoking in the past. Before the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, Americans smoked everywhere — at home, in their offices, in restaurants, in elevators, and on public transport, including aboard airplanes. Tens of millions were addicted to nicotine. Today, while smoking is taboo in many shared public spaces, the addiction to smart phones is reminiscent of the compulsion to smoke.

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