The Phone Test


If you are talking to a friend or colleague and your phone rings, who gets first priority?

One characteristic of effective communicators is how easily they warm to the chance to engage with others.  As this blog has noted before, conversation is the primary model for human communication. Exchanges with others fill in all of the essential boxes for what it means to be fully social.  The mutuality of exchange that happens when communicating in real time and space is the essence of our social selves.  It’s no coincidence that important celebrations and rituals take place in the presence of others.

If we are looking for a simple first impression of how much this central dynamic matters to a person—how much they have dedicated their life to direct engagement—there is a simple indicator found in an even simpler daily occurrence.  The test can be explained as a question: If you are talking to a friend or colleague and your phone rings, who gets first priority? Do you silence the phone, or do you put the live body in front of you on hold while you respond to the caller?  Who gets the green light?

My impression is that most individuals will put their communication with the person in front of them on hold. Their interlocutor is essentially silenced mid-thought.  That’s not good, but too few of us seem able to resist the bait.

It’s fair to situate this as at least a minor discourtesy.  Why would an electronic artifact of another person—potentially even a stranger—take priority over the person in front of you?

Phones are, for many, the gateway to immediate gratification.

We see this pattern frequently when a person is seeking the help of a clerk in a store.  It’s not unusual to see the clerk break off or delay the exchange to take a call.  My students tell me their employers in restaurants, supermarkets and similar settings remind them to always take the call, even if the customer in front of them has to wait.  To put the effect on the customer in terms Bernie Sanders that might recognize:  ‘Enough with the damn phone interruptions!’

Our blindness to the obvious differences between electronic avatars and real human beings should give us pause. An interrupted conversation is a recension of an important kind of acknowledgment. It devalues a conversational partner.

The problem is that these devices now pass as ersatz gateways. The urge to immediately respond to a call suggests a vain hope it will offer a kind of emotional reward. To turn a phone off even for a short period is to potentially sail into a storm of unplanned encounters or worse yet, maybe a moment of silence.  And for more of us, that’s a risk not worth taking. A phone’s promise of immediacy masks its more routine function as a conveyor of triviality.  Maybe a call will make our day, even though the odds for this kind of lottery are very low.  Why not show a little more interest in the human a few inches away?