Two pieces from BBC.com, both written by Renuka Rayasam, somehow struck me as appropriate subjects for this little Christmas week meditation. Perhaps only I would find a connection between these articles and Christmas, but finding odd connections is what “Kelly’s Place” has been about for the past twenty-seven years. At least this year I am not providing you with my occasional guide to gaudy Christmas home and lawn art, if you can call the recent invasion of inflatables art.
The first of these articles concerns itself with telephobia, or the fear of telephones. According to Rayasam, although we live in an era of mobile technology, “many people still suffer from a true, deep fear of making a phone call.” Oddly, several telephobia sufferers “might be comfortable delivering a talk in a room full of strangers or might send dozens of text messages a day, but get shivers when they need to talk on the phone.” It appears that this phone fear is not related to a fear of technology per se, but instead reflects our increasing apprehension of talking to someone directly without the intervention of the more impersonal text or social media post. Sherry Turkle writes about this in her must-read book from last year, RECLAIMING CONVERSATION, a study of the ways we are avoiding awkward face-to-face interactions in our mobile world.
Of course, telephobia is not entirely new, because ever since the invention of the telephone, there have been many who dislike using it, especially those who have a fear of making sales calls. Rayasam cites a 1986 study, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SALES CALL RELUCTANCE, co-written by George Dudley and Shannon Goodson, to support her case. Needless to say, the fairly recent development of telemarketing only increases telephobia among not only those who receive these annoying calls (admittedly less frequent with the advent of smartphones) but also among those who work in these types of businesses.
Michael Landers, the director of a group called Culture Crossings that offers consulting on navigating the treacherous waters of international relations, tells us that “across cultures the fear of the phone closely relates to a fear of being rejected, whether that means asking for an appointment with someone or trying to close a deal.” It’s much easier to send a text or a tweet, as witnessed by the large numbers of us who prefer breaking up a relationship in any way except in person (see Aziz Ansari’s clever book MODERN ROMANCE for a treatment of this phenomenon). Telephobia probably explains why most people are not purchasing smartphones because they make and receive phone calls, but because they can text, tweet, and take pictures.
Our next little modern problem is something called Scattered Brain Syndrome, which has to do with the phenomenon of multitasking and the endless distractions that plague our everyday lives. As Rayasam reminds us, “our days are filled with continual interruptions. Email, texts, meetings, needy colleagues—and the list goes on.” And she also reminds us that “a growing number of researchers say that trying to juggle multiple tasks makes you less productive.” In fact, many researchers say that multitasking is a myth, because we can only focus on one thing at a time—a fact that magicians depend on when they are dazzling (and distracting) us with their illusions. One of my favorite books published this year, Cal Newport’s DEEP WORK: RULES FOR FOCUSED SUCCESS IN A DISTRACTED WORLD, addresses the myth of multitasking and offers practical solutions to dealing with scattered brain syndrome (although he doesn’t use this term).
Greater Good Science Center director Dr. Christine Carter believes that we have developed a belief that “Busyness is a sign of importance,” which is probably a vestige from the early days of industrialization when the time clock became a symbol of productivity. She believes that “technology is actually rewiring our brains to be addicted to interruption, as we anxiously wait for the next ping signaling a new email, text or social media post.” Devora Zack, author of SINGLETASKING, concludes that “We suffer as a society from scattered brain syndrome. It’s everywhere—throughout our work lives and personal lives.”
Rayasam’s article offers four supposedly simple solutions to making our brains a little less scattered. First, “create an environment that promotes focus,” and one that offers us at least a temporary distraction-free oasis, free from notifications and status updates. Second, “avoid meeting mayhem” by leaving our mobile technology behind when we enter the meeting room, using only pen and paper for note-taking. Third, “cluster distracting tasks that drain time,” by scheduling times when we read and answer emails and are available for meetings. And, fourth, “make your availability known,” by discouraging (in a nice way, of course) impromptu meetings and chit-chat. Of course, since we live in the “real world,” following through with this four-step plan will prove to be pretty daunting. But we should at least try to reduce the approximately eleven million bits of information our brains process, or try to process, every second (a little tidbit I picked up from reading Tim Wu’s thought-provoking new book THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS).
And what is our holiday take-away from all this? Quite simply, it is my wish that for the next two weeks you will try as best you can to communicate with your loved ones and acquaintances in person and in a distraction-minimized environment. Yes, put away your phones and other mobile devices at your Christmas get-togethers and avoid texts, tweets, and status updates. Rediscover what it’s like to directly connect, in an unmediated way, with that person standing, sitting, or reclining next to you. I realize this may increase your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) anxieties, but stop and think what you’re missing by ignoring the people in the room.
So, I hope you and yours will have a very meaningful and memorable Christmas, unfilled with distractions and multitasking. That could be your greatest gift of all.
See you next week with my very personal list of the best books of 2016.