“Before technology allowed us to be anywhere anytime, conversation with other people was a big part of how we satisfied our brains’ need for stimulation.”
This is a big year for for smartphones. It’s the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. Everyone knew that Apple would do something big to mark the occasion. Google has been involved too and has released their new Pixel phone. It stores all of your photos in the cloud so you’ll never run out of room.
For all of their features, though, most people would likely say that their apps are what really make their phones worth using. Without the apps that we love to use, our phones would just be fancy slabs of glass and aluminum that send really gorgeous text messages. Apps open up the ability for me to make FaceTime calls, or do my banking online, or track my mountain biking, or write this blog post.
As a couples therapist, I often have couples that tell me how much their phones are interfering with their lives and their relationship. When they reunite after a day at work, couples say that their phones serve as an all-too-easy distraction that reduces the quality of their time together. It can keep them from having important conversation. It can keep their mind partially at the office instead of being fully present at home. It’s a real problem – we’ve talked about it a previous blog post, too.
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, researcher Sherry Turkle talks specifically about the impact that phones are having on the quality of our relationships. She enjoys technology and all the benefits it brings – and I do too! – but she knows that it’s important for us to realize the cost it has for our relationships. From parenting to physical intimacy, the type of relationship we have with our phone impacts the relationship we have with the humans we love.
Are there apps that can help? Maybe, but I’m not sure they’re the downloadable kind. Instead, there are three apps that might be helpful in keeping a positive perspective on the device that you have in your hand.
1. Be Approachable
Your phone might enable new, dynamic forms of digital conversation but it can be a barrier to the intimate and in-person. Turkle’s research shows that that the mere presence of a phone, even if it is turned off and laying face down on a table, can change what people talk about. It’s a powerful social and even physiological cue. Knowing that a person is within an arm’s reach of their phone signals that they are only partially or temporarily available to us. Why would we begin to have a conversation about the things that matter to us when we might get interrupted at any moment?
Being approachable is really about putting the phone down and being available to others. In-person conversation allows emotional connections that are simply unavailable in digital form. As Turkle puts it, “When we invest in conversation, we get a payoff in self-knowledge, empathy, and the experience of community.”
It might be worth installing this app right away!
2. Apologize In Person
If you’re investing time and energy into building a relationship with someone you love, at some point, you will say or do something that offends them. They will be angry with you. A conversation that involves making amends and owning up to the mistakes that we make – especially if we’ve hurt someone else – is a difficult conversation to have. It is so much easier to send a text that says “I’m sorry.” Include a few heart emoji and it can feel like we’ve done what we needed to do.
People don’t generally like having difficult conversations. Turkle, however makes the point that the difficulty inherent in these conversations actually makes us healthier, more empathetic human beings. The guilty person is able to see the pain in the face of the person that he hurt; these cues become a reinforcer to keep the same thing from happening again. But the person receiving the apology also gets to see and assess the genuineness of the regret in the apologizer’s face and actions. In Turkle’s words, “It is this realization that triggers the beginning of forgiveness.”
When you realize that you’ve done something that has hurt a person that you love, move towards them. Put down the phone and use this app to start you on the road to restoration.
In Turkle’s words, “Conversation cures.”
3. Appreciate the Present Moment
You can go anywhere. Sure, the virtual experience may not be as good as the real thing. With your device in hand, though, you can literally escape to any destination, real or imagined. You can experience what it is like to walk on the surface of the moon or you can get lost in the fictional worlds of your favorite characters. Today, you can even augment the reality of what is around you by summoning objects that appear to be sitting on your coffee table but only when you interact with them through your phone. You can share time and space with someone but yet be immersed in a completely different world.
You don’t need to wear augmented reality glasses or be lost in a Kindle book to escape the present moment. The dozens of notifications you get each day to your phone or the visceral buzzing of a smartwatch can take you away to another place. It can change your frame of reference to another relationship or work engagement. It can take you from a place of boredom to a place of excitement or a place of anxiety to a place of calm.
It can keep you from appreciating the value of the present moment.
Turkle says that we now have the opportunity “To avoid life’s challenges and boring bits.” She goes on to make the case, however, that it is in these moments – when we stay engaged with boredom or anxiety – we have opportunity to grow. Both, in fact, are signs that we are moving towards something that can help us to develop or to see the world in a different way. When we disengage from these things, we are forfeiting amazing potential.
And that’s just for ourselves.
When it comes to our relationships, being present is essential. It’s critical that we make eye contact or that we reach out and touch our partner. It’s not enough to occupy the same physical space. We need to learn what it is like to share our emotional space with our partner as well. Empathy helps us to understand the things that frustrate or frighten the people that we love. Having a new experience of someone can be anxiety provoking, but we have to stay engaged if we really want to move to the deepest levels of connection. We can’t bail out. We can’t escape to another place. We have to be present for the good times as well as the challenging times.
Appreciating the present moment might be the most important app you ever install.
I want to let Sherry Turkle wrap things up with one more quote from Reclaiming Conversation.
“Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”
Don’t neglect the people that you love. Install these three apps in your relationship today.
Recommendation: Reclaiming Conversation is a fantastic book to help you get an idea of the power of conversation. Highly recommended.