Put Your Phone under a Bushel

Since having someone to listen to them is so important to missionaries and other cross-cultural workers, I thought I’d put together a list of ways to be a good listener. One of the first things I thought of was

Let the person you’re talking with know that you’re giving him your full attention by turning your cell phone to silent and putting it on the table.

phonecupSounds good, right?

Wrong. And here’s why:

Just having a cell phone in view, even when it’s not being used—even when it’s not turned on—hinders the development of relationships. This is the finding of a study conducted by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, of the University of Essex, as published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

In the first of two experiments, Przybylski and Weinstein paired up strangers and asked them to talk about something that had happened to them over the past month. The participants left their belongings in a waiting area, and then they went to a private booth for their conversations. The booth contained two chairs, facing each other, with a table off to the side. For half of the pairs, on the table was a cell phone on top of a book. For the other half, the phone was replaced  with a pocket notebook.

The result was that partners who had a conversation in the presence of a cell phone felt less close to each other and had a lower quality of relationship compared to their counterparts who talked without a phone nearby.

Since the conversation in the first experiment dealt with a “moderately intimate topic,” the second experiment looked at the effects of a cell phone on less intimate conversations (about plastic trees) and more intimate conversations (about “the most meaningful events of the past year”).

In this exercise, the researchers continued to look at the quality of relationships and also added evaluations of the levels of trust and empathy. The results showed that the phone had little or no effect on those who were talking on the casual topic, but participants reported lower levels of relationship quality, trust, and perceived empathy when the phone was in view. And even though the more meaningful conversation topics encouraged more closeness and trust when the phone was absent, when the phone was present, the levels of intimacy were actually lower than when the topic was focused only on plastic trees.

It’s notable that these effects happened even when participants didn’t remember seeing the phone in the room.

So what is a good listener to do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Turn your phone to silent or turn it off. Turning it to vibrate won’t do. Anything that pulls your attention to the phone, even if you ignore it, will disrupt the relationship you’re trying to form.
  2. Don’t put your phone where it can be seen.
  3. You might suggest to your partner that he not get out his phone either. Explain to him how important your meeting is and tell him how you don’t want anything to hinder him or you. (Cross-cultural workers who have visited an embassy know what it’s like to have a meeting and have to leave their cell phones outside. If the meeting’s important enough, the sacrifice can be made.)
  4. If a true emergency requires you to keep your phone on, understand that you will be distracted not only by every call and text that comes in, emergency or not, but by the presence of the phone itself. At the very least, apologize and understand the limitations of a meeting under those conditions.

Don’t let your phone, or anyone’s phone, hinder you from fully investing in someone. Don’t let the Siren song of your social networks pull you away from the person across from you who needs a face-to-face conversation. And, of course, don’t be the person who answers calls, who texts, who tweets, and who checks Facebook while he’s supposed to be paying attention to the person in front of him. That’s not the way to grow a relationship, to foster trust, and to show empathy. And aren’t those the things that a good listener wants to do?

(Anddrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, July 19, 2012)

[photo: “iPhone + COFFEE,” by Kondo Atsushi, used under a Creative Commons license]


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