I sat in the classroom feeling awkward. The students were on break—some of them chatting in Chinese or Spanish, a relief for them after the rigors of learning English. Others were stretching their legs. I had 10 minutes until class resumed and I was once again a tutor.
I reached for my cell phone and began checking emails. Not that I was expecting anything important, and indeed, none of the emails required my urgent attention. But I looked busy. Important, even. Anybody looking at me might have thought I had vital emails that must be attended to NOW.
When did cell phones become a cure-all for awkwardness and boredom? Why did I succumb to the feeling that I have to be connected and productive at all times?
Before I became addicted to my electronic devices, I could amuse myself if I had a spare 10 minutes. Instead of isolating myself from interactions by fiddling with my phone, I might have wandered around and talked with someone. Maybe not my students. They’d be polite, but sometimes they need a break from “Teacher,” as they call me. But I probably would have found someone from another class.
Or if I wasn’t in the mood to talk, I might have gone for a walk. I could have quietly thought my own thoughts without needing to look busy. I might have sat in the atrium people-watching. The clothes, faces and manners of the new Americans who are learning English tell a story—something the writer in me finds interesting.
Before cell phones became so widespread, I would have thought it was fine to spend time doing nothing much. If I really really wanted to be productive, I could have planned dinner and made a grocery list.
But none of those options occurred to me, because without meaning to, I have learned to engage with my device instead of with people. And I’m not alone in this behavior. A recent study of college students in 10 countries found that they “literally didn’t know what to do with themselves” when they had to live without their smartphones and other electronic media for 24 hours. And Arianna Huffington acknowledged this issue when she issued her challenge to unplug for seven days.
With my cell phone handy, I don’t have to risk the slight discomfort of exchanging pleasantries with people I don’t know. I can talk with people who are far away, but I’m less likely to connect with the people close at hand.
My phone rewards me with a sense of purpose—fake busyness in this case—but it helps me pass an awkward or boring moment. And it’s always there. Somehow I’ve let myself get sucked into feeling that because I can be connected, I must be connected. Really? Why? I didn’t need to know right that minute that my online order had shipped or that a blogger I like had posted something new.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not getting rid of my cell phone any time soon. Cell phones have vastly improved many kinds of communication. But I do want to restore my ability to cope with boredom and discomfort without resorting to my phone. I do want to be more mindful of the ways cell phones can isolate people instead of connecting them.