The Attention War: Me vs Your Phone

Right there, in the middle of a conversation I was having with a friend, a silence started stretching out. 5 seconds, 10 seconds. 45 seconds.

‘Just give me a minute,’ I’m finally told, as the friend in front of me continues to text other friends in the middle of our dinner.

It’s happened more than a few times. In fact, it’s happened many, many times. Initially, I dismissed it. I’d squeak out a cheery ‘no problem!’ whenever I was told to ‘hang on’ or to give them ‘a minute’ as I felt more and more unappealing, in the eyes of others, with each passing second that my friend spent on their phone.

I’m not sure why people think it’s okay to do that, but I think it’s rude. Those messages aren’t always urgent. They usually don’t even need a response right there and then. It’s as if they need a commercial break in the middle of our dinner — a break that happens every 10 minutes, just like an American sitcom.

That’s precisely how I feel — that I’m supposed to entertain the person I’m sitting across from, like their choice of TV show — lest they get bored and choose their phone over me. When they do choose their phone, I feel lost. I don’t take the opportunity to look at my phone, because I’ve put it away so that I could focus on my friend and the conversation. Instead, I look around awkwardly, wondering when the ‘minute’ will end, wondering if they’re bored, wondering if this is the beginning of the end of our friendship.

As it kept happening with multiple friends, I decided to do the same thing. But I couldn’t. I always felt bad, like I was being rude. And when my boyfriend finally did it to me, I blew up and told him that it made me feel small, unimportant and ignored. The poor guy didn’t know why I was full of rage, but over the course of the next few weeks I was able to unpack my emotions regarding the situation.

We’re already so busy with our lives that as we get older, it can really be a struggle to find the time to meet our friends. So why is it that we let other people, other non-urgent conversations and, the root of it all, our phones get in the way of the precious time we’ve allocated for our friends? I’ve just never understood it.

Whatever happened to decency? To giving someone your attention? Is that only reserved for the person you’re dating? Or for a friend’s heartbreak?

I noticed it with others too. Strangers sitting next to me in a café, blatantly ignoring their friends mid-conversation. Colleagues tuning out of a group lunch, to scroll through their Instagram. Or even a manager at work, who scrolls through Facebook on his phone as his interns present their work in a meeting that he called for. It’s the height of self-absorption. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

What I realised, after unpacking all my emotions, is that checking your phone randomly in the middle of a conversation with a friend basically signals that there is something else that you’d rather be doing at that point in time. And if that were the case, then that dinner plan really shouldn’t have been made, that meeting shouldn’t have been called for and, please, go have lunch on your own if your Instagram feed is so much more scintillating that your colleagues’ dialogues.

So I’ve decided to continue putting my phone either in my bag, or with the screen turned down, when I meet up with a friend. I only check it if I’m going to the toilet or if I’m expected to reply to something urgent. There are definitely times where, in a fit of pseudo-rebellion, I check my phone either when a friend is checking theirs or right after they’ve checked their phone — as if to say, hey I can do it too! But it always makes me feel cheap and guilty.

I guess I’ve resigned myself to the fact that while I may feel this way, others may not. And many of them may be my friends. So while it sucks to feel some level of inferiority when it happens, I’m still going to not check my phone randomly and ignore the person I’m supposed to be paying attention to, in front of me.

Who knows, maybe they truly would rather be doing something else instead of having dinner with me, But I’ll wait for them to tell me to my face. (And stick closer to the friends who chuck their phone aside in favour of quality time with me.)