Look at me, not your phone

Mobile technology threatens our practice of Christian hospitality. It’s time for deeper conversations about when it’s acceptable -- and when it’s not -- to use our phones.

Sharing best practices in mobile technology use is not a distinctively Christian conversation, but sharing authentic conversation is foundational to our practice of Christian hospitality. We can’t ignore the small glowing screen in the room any longer.

We all complain about it, even if we are guilty of doing it -- sitting a table, gazing at the glowing screen of our phone rather than the faces of our friends and family who are with us. Someone makes a snarky comment about how wonderful it is to have dinner with the offending party and the phone guiltily makes its way to the table, pocket or purse.

A recent study concluded that even the physical presence of such a device decreases our ability to share empathetic conversations with one another. The visual presence of our phone on the table nonverbally communicates to both parties that our attention and ability to connect is divided.

I was at a community meeting recently when the meeting’s facilitator asked everyone to turn their phones to silent and put them out of sight. She quipped something along these lines: “If your phone’s vibrate mode registers on the Richter Scale, it’s no better than letting us hear your ringtone song.” She made caveats for parents with small children or others who had caregiving responsibilities, but the rest of us were held to her strict guidelines.

I made use of my phone’s “do not disturb” function that silences all but a few incoming callers. During that meeting, everyone at the table was engaged, even the quiet ones who didn’t speak. Presumably, they were engaged because the conversation was interesting, but the lack of distractions focused the engagement and aided the conversation.

Yet not every area of our life has as clear boundaries for technology use as a facilitated community meeting.

In my near-decade of professional work, I’ve been unable to ascertain a standard practice for the use of cellphones in the workplace. Some of my colleagues keep their phones six inches from their hand at all times, even during important meetings. Others never take it out of an office drawer except while taking a break. In some meetings, distracted phone fiddling seems permissible, but it’s wholly unacceptable in others. No one has asked me about my use of my phone at work or talked to me about best practice for phone use during meetings.

Cell phones in churches are equally confusing. Can I use my phone to read along with scripture and take notes? Or does it look like I’m scanning Instagram? I’ve never been in a church meeting where someone spoke of appropriate use of phones.

I’ve certainly never gone to dinner with friends when everyone verbally agreed to leave their phones out of sight and out of mind (despite that phone stacking game that none of my friends are rich or silly enough to play).

Sure, there are sometimes unspoken codes of etiquette, but we only seem to learn these codes through negative reinforcement: after we hear enough repeat complaints about or get annoyed by a certain kind of technology use, we stop doing it.

As leaders of churches and Christian institutions, we have an opportunity to help the conversation around mobile technology to mature. We can catalyze positive conversations in our workplaces, congregations, communities and families about how we feel when others paw at their devices rather than look us in the eye. We can talk about when phones should be pocketed and when their use is acceptable. We can set each other up for success by building consensus on best practices and holding each other accountable to those practices.

Our workplaces and congregations won’t instantly make Christianity’s Most Hospitable list, but it is possible that over time we will unlearn the poor habits of distraction and learn the joy of attention.