Those Anti-Social Smartphones

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how “before smartphones, people used to actually talk to each other in public.”

Actually, they didn’t.

Long before smartphones came along, people in urban settings were often packed into small spaces together with strangers, while commuting to work on trains and buses, or eating workday meals. I have been a daily commuter on public transport in London (1984), Washington DC (1986-87), Milan (1991-2007), and San Francisco (2012-2014). I have traveled alone a lot (on business), which resulted in eating meals alone in unfamiliar places, in contexts where others were doing the same (e.g., hotel restaurants).

In all those times and places (some long before cellphones became widely available, some during and after the rise of the cellphone era), I saw few instances of people striking up conversation with random strangers. I am more comfortable than many in doing so, but I don’t do it often. For many reasons.

Much of the time, I just don’t feel like it. Even for an extrovert like me, interacting with strangers takes energy, much more than interacting with people I know. My workdays already tend to be full of human interaction, both face-to-face and electronic. Some of this is high-stakes communication, where I must be constantly aware of what I’m hearing, what I’m saying, and how best to proceed in the conversation. By the time I’m commuting home each day, I need alone time, not more energy-sucking interaction!

As for the morning commute, get real: how many of us  want to expend this kind of energy on strangers when we’re still half asleep, or mentally gearing up for the workday ahead?

This has always been true for many commuters. Before cellphones came along, I observed people reading (newspapers, magazines, books), listening to music (back in the mid-80s, the complaint was that the Walkman was “making people anti-social”), occasionally talking to people they knew and happened to be traveling with, or… just staring into space (or sleeping).

The people I see talking with strangers in public are most often not commuters: they’re tourists out to see the sights, who evidently consider chatting up the locals to be part of their travel experience. Or people on the way to a sports event, who have an instant (and often loud) bond with everyone they see dressed in their team’s colors.

For women, initiating or accepting conversation with a strange man can be hazardous: it can be hard to judge whether a guy is genuinely just friendly and chatty, or is one of those who believes that chatting with him equates to being interested in him and responding to his advances. Being (or appearing to be) unapproachably absorbed in a book or phone is a defense mechanism.

So… can we stop with the sanctimonious pronouncements about how cellphones make people antisocial, and the false nostalgic fantasies that everyone was so “friendly” before we had them? If a friend you are out with is checking their phone instead of talking to you, that is indeed rude behavior. But there’s no social requirement to chat with everyone you happen to be in a public space with – and there never has been.

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