As I was leaving my office yesterday after a busy day, a young woman joined me on the ride down the elevator. She was talking on her cell phone and, when she stepped on the elevator, she said to her friend, “I’m getting on to an elevator; I’ll call you right back.”

Now, that was a first for me. It seems like such a small thing but it really made my day. It caught me by surprise because, in this modern world of ours, we are much more likely to chatter on as we ride down the elevator. We forget to care about intruding into the space of whoever else is riding with us. We don’t even think about there being any value to privacy while we talk. We are so used to dropped calls in elevators and while driving, we just go for it! So, when this young lady politely ended her call, it gave me pause.

I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. And, of course, by “phone,” I mean “incredibly high tech gizmo that allows me to speak and text to my friends and family, read and send emails instantly, and search the World Wide Web for answers to any question that might pop into my mind.” I don’t ever have to wait to get back to someone or to check my stocks, my Facebook, or my blog stats on Psychology Today. It’s all very convenient. Very efficient. Very cool.

It’s also very annoying. You know what I mean. In-person relationships suffer for all the wonder of it. The phone vibrates at the dinner table, during class, or in your therapy session. It interrupts you when you’re talking with your kids or (more likely) when your kids are talking to you. You’re at that dramatic moment in your television show and “gong,” you’ve got a text! Your wife is telling you about her day and “ching ching,” you’ve got mail!

And we all know that the vibrations, gongs, chings and rings bring a kind of irresistible pressure to respond. It’s hard to let a message just wait. We want to keep the links unbroken. We want to know what’s going on. We don’t want to miss anything. We don’t want there to be any gaps.

The irony is that by keeping an unbroken link of virtual communication with the world, we break all of the in-person links of communication with one another. When we cannot resist the pull of the phone or tablet or computer, I also think we break communication with ourselves. We fill in the space of being alone with our thoughts and feelings. We miss out on the precious opportunities to be present to the moment that we are in. I think this is one of the reasons why we are so stressed out all the time, always running, always hurried. We can’t just be. We can’t just wait. We can’t just take our time. We can’t just make a little bit of space.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my phone. But I have to work to keep it in its place, otherwise I come to resent it. I must have some discipline to remember that I really don’t want it to intrude on my dinner out with my husband, my weekend getaway to the mountains, or my few moments of reflection between patients during my workday. 

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens… “ I try to keep that idea in mind so that I can take time for the cool gadgets in my life as well as the gadget-free moments that have their own kind of special, too.

I complimented the young woman in the elevator on her excellent manners. She smiled and said, “How rude it would be to ride down in the elevator with you while I’m yakking on my phone.” I smiled back and thanked her. It was an unexpected gift of kindness. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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