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As I pay more attention to my ‘being’ self, how I show up and how I communicate, I’ve grown more observant about how others are ‘being’. What I’ve noticed, whether in my own home with my family, eating out at a restaurant, sitting in a meeting or attending an event, is deeply disturbing. It appears that a majority of people trade the gift of time for the urge to grab their phones to check social networks, text, call or play games. People don’t know how to ‘be’ with a few spare minutes. I’m curious. Are others noticing this phenomenon as well?

I’m certainly among the guilty. I bring this point to light as a result of my own reflections about how authentically I show up in life and how I’m communicating.

Here’s an example. I recently attended the Starstruck Invitational at Waukee High School. It’s a show choir competition featuring incredible vocal and dance talent from a number of middle and high schools across the state.

As I sat in the auditorium with hundreds of fellow spectators (of all ages), I noticed something unsettling. A majority of those around me and off in the distance were in a position we’ve all grown too accustomed to seeing: Head down, one arm holding a palm-sized device and a thumb scrolling from one image to the next. Or, the other popular position: Head down, both hands holding a palm-sized device while both thumbs tap a screen at near warp speed. 

I wish I was embellishing when I say there was little to no interpersonal interaction. Instead, the ‘down time’ was filled with people tethered to indispensable lifelines—smartphones and cell phones. As a result, people were in a persistent state of ‘absent presence’. We are physically in a place but mentally absent. Communication quality and our ability to genuinely connect with others suffers greatly. 

Considering 83% of American adults own some kind of cell phone it’s no wonder these devices impact many aspects of our lives. 

But is it okay?

From a communications perspective, I find myself wondering about the impact of cell phones on communication and interpersonal interactions. Are we fooling ourselves into thinking that a state of ‘absent presence’ is okay? 

Research indicates having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.

A study published in the Journal Environment and Behavior confirms the findings of a 2013 lab-based study in a real-world setting. “Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of the connections. Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and change in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice and have less eye contact.” If that’s the case with the mere presence of a mobile phone, it’s mind boggling to think of its effect when in use. 

According to a CareerBuilder Study, mobile phone use in the workplace is noted as the top productivity killer. It’s no wonder the quality of workplace environments is suffering. 

It appears cell phones have bred a culture where it’s simply uncomfortable to sit alone without being (or even just looking) busy. Moments of downtime that perhaps used to be time for quiet thought or a casual conversation with someone nearby are now filled to the brim with texts and apps — it seems there’s not a moment that goes by now that can’t be occupied by this tethered technological gadget.

This gadget is changing how we interact with one another. It’s constructing a barrier between between ourselves and the traditional daily events to which we are accustomed”. I’m reminded  of an article by Christine Rosen called, “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves,” in which she writes that cell phones have led to a “radical disengagement in the public sphere” wherein people sacrifice not only etiquette, but also engagement in the world around them as a result of being so cell-phone centric. 

Establishing a new norm

I’m hoping by now you’re as intentional as I am about shifting from ‘absent presence’ to ‘presence’ or ‘being’. I have some thoughts about how to to slowly and surely unravel this new norm. 

1. Conduct Your Own Research

How many times have you shown up at a meeting only to find people sitting around a table in one of the two positions mentioned earlier in this post? Take note of how you feel when you enter that space. What do you do about it? Do you defer to what everyone else is doing or do you strive to ‘be’ an example of what’s possible? Consider re-thinking how you show up to one meeting a day for one week. 

2. ‘Be’ a Change Agent

Imagine what would happen if the next time you showed up for a meeting, you refrained from having your phone visible. Up the ante slightly and communicate the ‘why’ behind your decision. For example, “In an effort to be more present during our meeting today, my mobile device is going to remain tucked away. I’m hopeful distractions will decrease and our time together will be more productive.” At the meetings conclusion, ask those in attendance if they noticed a difference and how they felt about it.

3. Communicate

Once you’ve had several experiences ‘being’ more present in workplace interactions (because your cell phone has been tucked away), share your discoveries with co-workers. The communication can be casual (one-on-one conversations) or more formal (included in an internal newsletter). No matter the avenue, your efforts will impact others in a way that alters the way they show up - their way of ‘being’.