Why I Have a Dumbphone

I admit it. I sometimes think about buying a smartphone. I watch all the folks around me who flip through emails, videos, and maps, pulling up all kinds of goodies from the Internet, even as they make calls, and I think, “I should get one of those.”

Recently, I was in Goodyear, Arizona for a business conference. Everyone there was Twittering away while I sat back, listening to the presentations. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how folks could send tweets and still actually hear what was being said. How can you effectively do both? And why isn’t it rude to be buried in your communications when someone else is communicating with you? I understand that these days media conferences are all about getting the word out. People are encouraged to tweet in real time, whether it’s all about business or the latest entertainment event. But is that really the way to go? What do we really gain from that behavior?

Me, I need to sit down and concentrate when I want to share information. I don’t just want to spit things out. I want to digest them first and only regurgitate the important facts. I’m a proponent of self-editing, even though I know I don’t do it often enough. In this age of instant communications, are we connecting enough? I worry about the social implications of the current social media trends. We’re skimming the surface. Are we creating the climate for the new disaffected masses, not really meeting human needs as we embrace our new digital culture?

As I was traveling, I found myself in the Charlotte Douglas airport to make a connecting flight. In the ladies room, I was greeted by a lovely older lady, who gave me a cheerful hello. I looked into that kind face with the warm smile. I made eye contact. And even as I did, other women flew past us. No human contact could pull them away from their smartphones. How sad, I thought to myself, that we can’t spare time to be pleasant, polite. In Phoenix, the ladies room attendant was disgruntled and disinterested. Can we really blame her, when no one seems to see her as a human being?

And then today, I found confirmation that maybe, just maybe, I’m not on the wrong track. Dr. Keith Ablow was talking about new studies of how this digital technology negatively impacts children. What’s missing? The human interaction we all need.

That reminds me of the day my mother and I sat and watched a four-year-old girl try to communicate with her mother at a Panera Bread restaurant. Every time the young child tried to ask a question, she was shushed. Every effort she made to connect with the twenty-something woman was cut off. It made us sad to watch this display of unmotherly behavior. Why? Because we always made the effort to talk. Did we always succeed? No, but we tried. I couldn’t imagine having a mother who told me to be quiet every time I reached out. That strikes me as cold and unfeeling. Oh, did I mention that the entire lunch was spent by the mother having a phone conversation with a friend? Do you know how hard it is to sit and watch a child fidget that long without wanting to approach that mother? Back then, I was too polite. Now? Now I think I would grab the bull by the horns and just invite the child to sit with us. The hell with her mama. I’d be more than happy to chat with a four-year-old child. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, isn’t it?

Ever found yourself trapped in the supermarket by the Aisle Wanderer armed with a smartphone, who drones on throughout your shopping excursion, whining about whether or not to get those crackers? How come we always seem to be headed in the same direction at the same time? How come it’s so impossible to put the smartphone down when the cashier is rining up the order? Why not use the self-serve checkout, where you won’t insult humanity by maintaining your ever-so-important conversation about that awesome vacation you just took?

Every time I am tempted to buy that smartphone, I remind myself how nice it is to have a dumbphone. A plain, ordinary flip cell phone. I even had the phone company disconnect the Internet features because I kept hitting the wrong button and hooking up online without meaning to, racking up the monthly charges.

The way I look at it, I don’t want to stumble into my communications like a drunk loading up on cheap gin and peanuts. I actually want to be effective in what I say and do. I want to be conscious of my own thoughts. Most of all, I want that “down time”, those lovely little moments when I sort out the hours of my life. What’s working? What’s not working? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? What can I improve? If I’m always hooked up to my smartphone, when will I have time to actually be smart?

Sure, I’m probably insulting a lot of people by not instantly messaging. I actually only just found I had Twitter messages in my account that I had never read in the year plus I’ve been connected. And as for Facebook, I still am not convinced it’s the way to really get together with people and have a meaningful dialogue. Call me a rebel. Call me an oddity. I think we need to put the “social” back into social media. I hereby grant each and every one of you the right to shut off your smartphones, to set up “safe zones” and “safe times”, when the world can just hold its water while you do something else. It’s okay to make your own rules about how, when, and why you connect to the Internet. The world will not fall apart if you don’t check every ping that pops up on your smartphone. People can wait. When folks know that you only check in a few times a day, that tells them the window of opportunity to communicate with you is defined. It gives them the chance to pace themselves. Better still, it means there’s no rush to get in touch with you.

Years ago, back in the days of snail mail, a letter was a communication that brought the written word to the reader in ways that could make us feel. Soldiers and sailors longed for letters from home, provided it wasn’t the dreaded “Dear John”. Lovers and sweethearts clutched envelopes to their breasts, their hearts flying at the thrill of those affectionate words. From a distance, we could hear about the lives of those we love and imagine ourselves with them, enjoying every moment. It’s time to get back to really connecting with the people in our lives, whether we do it long-distance or in person. People should always matter more than the technology, and the technology should enable us to be more human, not less. Never forget that the heart is the heart. It needs what it needs, to feel that when it speaks, someone is actually listening. Next time you find yourself rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off, stop yourself. Look folks in the eye. Listen when they speak. We’re losing a very important part of our humanity and we need to reclaim it, but we can only do that by being genuine. The younger generations are counting on us to teach them the way, even if it means we get ourselves dumbphones.

We Failed to Teach the Younger Generations Life’s Real Lessons

When it comes to teaching social responsibility to the younger generations, we screwed up, plain and simple. The environmental generation, the compassionate activist generation — they get the big picture and fail every day on the small, human-to-human microcosm level. They pat themselves on the back that they are wiser than we are, easier on Mother Nature, kinder, more socially aware and far-reaching in their efforts. But they come up short over and over and over again. Why? We failed to teach them about life’s real lessons. They can Twitter till the cows come home. They can organize rallies till governments collapse and the oppressed are free of tyranny. It won’t change the fact that they just don’t understand what it takes to be a decent human being.

They can call me an old crank, if it makes them feel less guilty. They can knock themselves out. I’m old enough and bodacious enough not to care what they think about me. I know what I see on a regular basis. We are failing all over the place to connect as human beings in a living world, and the sad thing is the world suffers for it.

The younger generations have mistaken mass media for social nobility. A push of the button means an easy donation to the cause of the day. A rally against corporations becomes a tool against financial oppression of the little people. Embracing a cause makes for respectability on the resumé. We have super-sized social interactions to the point that we have abandoned humanity.

The younger generations are not practicing what we preach, mostly because it’s hard work. Real human connection requires interaction. You actually have to pay attention to the person facing you, even when that person disagrees with you. When they can assuage their collective conscience by moving in solidarity with a cause célèbre, they lose sight of the truth of social justice. Social justice is not some great big concept. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s about understanding that every person with whom we come into contact in our daily lives is every bit as worthy of our efforts as the most dire victim in a foreign land. They assume that only the starving, the beaten, the bloody, the tortured, the poor, are the ones we should lavish attention, respect, and money on. Why? Because that’s the road to personal glory and self-worth. It’s a false sense of self-esteem that is pulled around the younger generations like a golden cloak of goodness. If they participate in popular causes, they must be decent human beings. Sometimes that human kindness shown to a stranger who does not appear to be in need can change the world for the better in far greater ways than throwing ten bucks at an organization.

When I look at the younger generations, when I interact with them in everyday life, I want them to take away what works in human relationships. I want them to know that when they make an effort to be cooperative and kind, it makes the world a better place. It spreads a little sunshine right here, right now. Maybe it’s less romantic than imagining some grand gesture sweeping across a brutal desert in some foreign land or creating a big buzz over the Internet, but it’s vastly more real. This is what builds decent, responsible human beings. When we teach the younger generations to think beyond themselves, we open the world up to them, and that’s never a bad thing. But there is a big difference between doing what is within reach and overreaching. When we teach them that only those distant causes are worthy, we create a huge void between them and the people whose lives are directly impacted by their actions.

“Charity begins at home” actually has some resonance in this day and age, even though it sounds like a selfish thing. The truth is real charity takes real work. Real sacrifice is always a real effort.  Actions often speak louder and do more, but only when people see the real problems and the real solutions.

Let me use the supermarket as my example of how much we have failed to teach our younger generations about what really matters socially. In line at the grocery store, people carry on conversations with the invisible voice at the other end of the cell phone. What message does that send to the cashier? That he or she is chopped liver, not worthy of attention and respect? What does that say to fellow shoppers, forced to overhear details of petty little disagreements with spouses, children, in-laws, and even employers? I don’t need to know these things about strangers. It’s the equivalent of someone throwing emotional candy wrappers on the floor. It’s social littering.

Have you held a door for someone lately? Back in the “old days”, when people mattered, it was standard to say “thank you” when someone held it for you. Now, folks think nothing of ignoring the door holder or someone who needs the door held. We care about famine in a faraway country, we pat ourselves on the back for organizing a social rally for a cause, but inevitably, we ignore the very people with whom we come into contact in our daily lives. Distant strangers matter more than the people in our immediate world. How sad is that?

Ever wander down the aisle at the supermarket, only to find your path blocked by a shopper on a mission? A mission so critical to the nation that it is necessary to leave that cart in the middle of the aisle? When we teach the younger generations to do their own thing according to their own needs, we teach them to “log jam”. The rest of the world must move around them because they remain unaware of their actual environment. Every responsible human being should know that there are other people affected by our actions, and we should make the effort to accommodate the people sharing that environment. We all occasionally forget ourselves momentarily with that cart in the aisle, but that’s what apologies are for — and they can result in some great conversations that help us reconnect with humanity. Gestures matter, especially when they are sincere and offered without expectation. That’s how you grease the wheels of the world and make it run smoother.

The other day, I pushed my shopping cart to the corral and walked it in, straightening out the other carts while I was there. It took me less than fifteen seconds. The woman who came up behind me with her cart gave it a good, hard shove, aiming it in the direction of the cart corral. She wasn’t interested in making sure it got there, or that it didn’t get damaged by rough handling. She looked at me like I was a real idiot for being overly concerned about that cart of mine. It occurred to me that this was a woman who had real anger management issues. This was a woman who didn’t think it was necessary to edit her emotions or her behavior. She told herself she was doing the minimum necessary to be a good citizen by shoving her cart in the direction of the corral. She was successful by that small gesture. But was she?

And was I really the idiot for walking the cart to the corral, as her disapproving look seemed to convey? I don’t fuss with my cart because I am a control freak, but because I think beyond my own immediate needs. I think about the shopper that will be inconvenienced by the cart that takes up a perfectly good parking space. I think about the store employee that has to schlep those carts back and forth to the store. I think about the owners of cars who are at risk for damage due to negligent behavior. Every time a cart is left outside the corral, it’s more likely that a car will be scratched or damaged. I could say that I also think about how the carts are also damaged by mishandling, ending up in landfills too soon, but that’s a minor point. The truth is I am more concerned with making life better for the people in my world, my fellow shoppers and the store employees.

What really does make for a decent human being? If actions speak louder than words, especially in tweets, then take a look around the supermarket the next time you go shopping, especially on a crowded day. Make eye contact. See the reactions of the people in the store. You’ll find the decent people looking back at you, sharing a smile, being aware of you and your needs as much as their own. They’re out there, too. They may not be famous activists or important supporters of important causes. They’re too busy being good neighbors and citizens. That’s because they learned life’s lessons and they’ve put them into practice. Now, if only we could grow the movement and get more people onboard this worthy cause….