A Losing Battle?

Posted by on Oct 2, 2017 in Blog, Featured | 8 comments

A Losing Battle?

One of the things that drives me crazy is seeing people with their smartphones up to their faces, totally absorbed by Facebook or Twitter as they ignore everyone else around them. I know that I’m old fashioned, but I still find it rude. It’s become addictive behavior.

There are two incidents that have stayed with me over the past several years concerning this issue. In the first, I was getting ready to teach a Masters class in Organization Development at Antioch University. I went into class the first day and there were 10 students sitting around a big table. One of the students had his laptop open so I went up to him and said, “I would appreciate it if you’d close your laptop for our class. I’m trying to promote discussion and dialogue among the students and find that laptops interfere—they shut down contributions to the discussion. I know that you’re probably just taking notes, but it’s not really that type of class.” He refused to close his laptop and told me that he could multi-task easily. So I asked him to leave the class. I just didn’t trust his ability or interest in engaging with all of us—he was more interested in his computer screen.

In the other incident, I was giving a speech at a conference. The title of my speech was “The Art of Pretending”. I talked about people being quite skilled at seeming to engage or listen while their minds are elsewhere. Employees sit around a U-shaped table pretending to listen to a Power Point presentation as they are texting messages to others underneath the table. Even in one-on-one discussions, I often feel like grabbing the other person’s shoulders and saying, “Are you listening to what I’m saying?” It’s difficult to detect. People have become so skilled at pretending.

When I was done with my talk, a woman came up to me. She was on the verge of crying as she said to me, “I just want you to know how impactful your talk was. It’s like you were speaking directly to me. I really am going to change and work on being more present with people that I’m engaged with. Thank you so much.” And with that, before I could respond to her, she turned away, brought out her phone, and began to text a message to someone. I felt totally cut off. It made me wonder if anything I said would stick. I think she was sincere in her comment to me—but she instantly was on to the next task.

I know I’m going to lose this battle. We live in a fast-paced world. But I’m going to hold on to my own small gestures like leaving my iPhone at home occasionally when I go out, slowing down with friends, writing letters, and insisting on dialogue rather than staring at a computer.


  1. John, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s a sorry development in our culture that is unlikely to change. But observations like yours may help to raise awareness about this. Thanks, Gary

  2. John, I don’t have a smart phone and don’t miss it at all. I do have a cell phone for emergencies.

    I’ve had similar experiences in classes that you describe. Good for you for sending the recalcitrant “student” out of your class.

    Cliff Bolster

    • Precisely on target, John. Very well expressed! Mike

  3. John,
    Good article. To be relevant, we need others to allow us to feel wanted and useful, loved if possible, to be connected to the world. How lucky then are we to live in a time of super-connectivity. I often wonder if we are raising children to be lonely. The internet and its offspring, the social media, have connected the world in a miraculous and wonderful ways which we now take for granted. But being connected does not necessarily mean being close. There are unintended consequences of technology and as we are all reminded the new I-phone is just another reason not to talk to the person next to you.

  4. John–cell phones have dramatically altered the atmosphere in my classrooms (I ban laptops in class). I tell students to put phones in their pockets or bags when class starts but they continue to peer down at their laps and I continue to call them out. It’s frustrating. But the saddest change I see comes before the class. I used to walk in and there would be a buzz of conversation. People chatted with each other about their weekends–whatever–and created connections. That later made it easier for them to speak up during out discussions. Now I walk in and everyone is connected to their virtual friends–staring down at their phones. It depresses me. I could go on forever about this–but I’ve got to head off to class.

  5. Hi John, My daughter banned TV and iPad for a while for her 3 and 7 year old daughters, in other words NO SCREEN TIME. She found that after some Saturday morning TV time the 7 year old was a bit rude and bored. TV and computer time become baby sitters. So they have gone back to building and drawing and sewing etc. My hat is off to her. Thanks for your article.

  6. Yes, John, you hit the nail on the head on both counts: the widespread addiction to screens, and the likelihood that this will not change anytime soon. It is not likely to change for multiple reasons, but two main ones are that the tech companies are very adept at building in addictive qualities to their apps, and because universities (including Oregon State) are building the use of laptops into their classroom materials. I not only do not have a smartphone, but I also will not ride my bike in this student-heavy town due to the pervasive texting while driving. Oregon just passed a traffic law that it is punishable by high fines and potential jail time for even touching an electronic device while driving. The local court and police department are very worried about their ability as well as their desire to enforce this law.

  7. Hey John. A few years back I was teaching a photography class at F.I.T. here in NYC. That was the first and only class I taught there as I found this phone addiction impossible to fight. One might say I should’ve fought harder to engage them. Well, for me, life is too short. This is a battle for the young amongst themselves at some point…when they’ve woken up.

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