Can We Talk?

Why more conversations, and fewer texts, are good for your relationships and your emotional health

Illustration: by Carl Wiens
We’re resigned to companions who sometimes prefer to use their devices instead of fully engaging with us .

Not long ago, when out-of-town relatives would stay with me for the weekend, my favorite part of each visit happened after the kids went to sleep. We’d pour ourselves wine and chat until nearly midnight, laughing about old memories and sharing new stories.

These days, the dynamic is completely different. The first adult who returns from bedtime duty doesn’t reach for the wine glasses; he parks himself on the couch and reaches for his mobile phone. Just until the others show up, he tells himself. One by one, everyonegathers where we used to regale each other with amusing anecdotes, but there’s silence instead of laughter as everyone checks e-mail accounts, text messages and Facebook feeds.

We might eventually pour some wine and talk, but everyone keeps a mobile phone in his or her lap the whole night, and the conversation is often interrupted with an alert that someone elsewhere has something (better?) to say. Whenever this happens, I yearn wistfully for the days when my relatives and I would focus all of our attention on each other and really connect.

My experience isn’t unique. Half the people in the world have smartphones. In Europe, there are even more mobile phone subscriptions than people, so phones are really everywhere.

Mobile phone usage is so widespread, people like me—who value quality conversation—have become resigned to the fact that sometimes our companions prefer to use their devices instead of fully engaging with us. Today’s instant-gratification, short-attention-span lifestyle has trained people to seek new information at every moment, so for many people, face-to-face, lull-in-the-conversation encounters aren’t as engaging as phones with constant news and updates. And relationships are suffering.

“Smartphones have become a safety blanket—whenever there’s a moment of potential boredom, people turn to their smartphones,” says Daria Kuss, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, who studies mobile phone usage. “Since the development of the first smartphones 15 years or so ago, that behavior has been so normalized. Everyone has them.”

A Constant Distraction
Because smartphones can produce a never-ending stream of interesting things to look at, they often rival real-life companions.

“Mobile phones communicate themselves,” says Oliver Bilke-Hentsch, a psychiatrist in Zürich who studies Internet addiction. “You don’t need a phone call from someone. The device itself shows you new information. You have to control yourself just to look.”

Nicole Gommers, 38, of The Hague, has grown tired of competing with a mobile phone for her partner’s attention.

“It is hard to have a conversation with him, because he is constantly distracted by his phone,” Gommers says. “When I ask something, he will answer, but I can tell that his mind is elsewhere. There is always someone who sends a text, and that means the end of the conversation, because it requires an answer.

“For a while, he was totally addicted to Wordfeud, an online word puzzle game you can play with anonymous others. As soon as he started a game, you were no longer allowed to speak, because he couldn’t focus.”

Because younger people grew up with a lot of exposure to technology, they’re more likely than older folks to use mobile phones in social settings, and they’re considerably more likely to sit silently with a group of peers, each person staring at a phone. This has impacted the generation’s communication skills.

“Young people find it very difficult to develop the skill of talking to another person and paying attention to another person without engaging with a smartphone,” Kuss says. “They may have trouble having real-life conversations in a way that we older generations may be used to connecting to people and engaging in deep and meaningful conversation.”

A Silent Force
Smartphones are so influential, they can have power over a conversation even when they aren’t in use. Researchers have found that when a mobile phone is placed on a table—even if the phone’s owner isn’t actively using it—the depth of mealtime conversation plummets.

“Our study found that when the phone was within sight of one or both conversation partners, the participants reported poorer quality of conversations and lower levels of empathetic exchange,” says study author Shalini Misra, an assistant professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech University. “Rather than being a benign background object, smartphones that are in sight can distract individuals from their in-person context.”

Because people may realize that they can be interrupted, they’re less likely to engage in conversations about feelings or problems, instead leaning toward superficial small talk.

“Meaningful conversations require attentive participants,” Misra says. “We need to listen to the words, tone and pauses, observe facial cues and body movements, and think about what we are hearing to understand what it means and respond appropriately. This is a complex task and requires a lot of cognitive resources. If our attention is split, our complex tasks—like conversations—will suffer. And the visibility of the phone prompts us to direct our thoughts to other things.”

Illustration: Carl Wiens
Smartphones are so influential, they can have power over a conversation even when they aren’t in use.

A Negative Influence
Recent research has found that college students in 2009 had lower levels of empathy than college students did 30 years earlier. The researchers considered the effects of technology and social media on this deficit of empathy, among other factors, but they didn’t draw conclusions about the cause for the drop between 1979 and 2009.

“I don’t know that there’s evidence right now of cell phones or social media causing the loss of empathy,” says study author Sara Konrath, assistant professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis. “There are probably multiple reasons for the change: changes in family dynamics and sizes, changes in political activities.”

Konrath’s other research has found that young adults have the lowest empathy levels, while middle-aged women have the highest levels. Why? Middle-aged women may have more opportunities to flex their empathy muscles: Caring for their children, looking after their older parents and mentoring younger colleagues. Fortunately, Konrath says, you can increase your empathy levels with practice, and leaving your phone out of the equation can help.

“We are wired to react face-to-face—our ancestors didn’t have cell phones,” Konrath says. “It’s good to practice empathy in a face-to-face way. You have the capacity to see facial expressions and hear tone of voice. There are more signals about how they’re doing, so you can tune in better.”

Feeding an Addiction
Because mobile phones are so distracting, people become preoccupied with them everywhere, even at work. Fabien Guasco, 43, of Saint-Pathus, France, gets frustrated when it disrupts his meetings.

“People are concentrating on the messages that arrive in their e-mail box instead of listening to what is being said,” Guasco says. “That’s why I got into the habit of quickly turning silent if one of my staff is tapping away at their smartphone. As a result, everyone pays attention!”

Researchers have found out why it’s hard to put those devices down: They feed an addictive nature.

“Every time you get a Like on social media or a reward in a game,” Bilke-Hentsch says, “you get a little injection of dopamine in your reward center in your brain. You want to have it again. It’s like smoking a cigarette or eating a sweet. Maybe from your spouse you don’t get these rewards.”

A Hopeful Solution
If you’re tired of playing second fiddle to a handheld device and you’d like to curtail a loved one’s smartphone usage without a heated argument, try these ideas:

Detail your needs. Spell out what you’d like—no phones at mealtime, perhaps, or no answering texts while you’re conversing—but speak calmly, and don’t accuse or blame. “Use more ‘I’ statements than ‘you’ statements,” Kuss says. “Say ‘I would like to spend more time with you,’ instead of ‘You spend all of your time on technology.’”

Negotiate for fewer alerts. Your partner doesn’t just look at his phone when he wants to; the phone alerts him to check it whenever something happens on social media or in his favorite games. If he disables the alerts, he’ll use his phone less often.

“These notifications will increase your actual use of the mobile phone,” says Joël Billieux, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Luxembourg, who studies the addictive use of information and communication technologies. “Research suggests that when you receive notifications, you generally check more applications than just the one that has sent the notification.”

Be “pro-pockets.” Encourage your partner to keep his unused phone in his pocket, not on the table. “When the phone is in sight, it becomes salient to the person, even if they don’t consciously realize that their attention is divided,” Misra says. “Out of sight” may very well be “out of mind.”

Cite user stats. Your partner may not realize how much time he spends on his phone, but his phone tracks how much time he spends on each app. Ask him to check his numbers.

“These make you realize the kind of time you are spending on your phone,” Kuss says. “Seeing that may decrease your use.”

Buy him a watch. He won’t have to reach for his phone to check the time when he wants to know if it’s dinnertime.  Says Billieux, “A recent study showed that people wearing a watch reduced their time spent using smartphones.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest