Are our Smartphones Killing Intimacy?

Imagine a scenario: a couple at a cafe, sitting at a small table together, sipping their coffee. One is scribbling in a notebook (like, on paper). The other is flipping through a magazine. Every few minutes they may exchange a few words, but for the most part, they sit in an extended silence.

What do you think about these people? Here’s what I’d assume:

  • They are in comfortable, companionable silence.
  • They probably live together or perhaps are on vacation together. In any case, they’ve recently spent a good deal of time together, so silence is totally OK.
  • If they’ve ordered food, as soon as the food comes, they will put away those items that have held their attention, and turn their focus to each other. They might embark on a lively discussion about the ideas scribbled in the notebook or an article in the magazine.
  • They love each other. Their relationship is healthy.

Now imagine the same two people. Take away the notebook and magazine. Replace those analog items with smart phones, but don’t change anything else.

Now what do you think about the couple? Personally, my assumptions change COMPLETELY. Here’s what I would now guess:

  • They might be mad at each other. They might just have nothing to say. But I don’t assume any companionship in their silence.
  • They could be married, they could be a month into their relationship. Who knows? But either way, the relationship is probably not healthy. It’s doomed.
  • Once any food comes, there is no guarantee that the devices will be put away. I’d guess that they will sit on the table, and throughout the meal, multiple buzzes and pings will interrupt any stilted conversation.
  • The companions (if you can call them that) will not think to divulge stories or thoughts related to what they were doing on their phones.

I not only have these feelings as I judge the strangers around me, but also when I am in one of those scenarios. When my partner and are reading/writing/drawing non-digitally, I feel together. I feel companionship. But when we sit in bed on a Saturday morning, both poking away at our phones, I feel isolated. I feel…gross.

But is this rational? Are Scenario One and Two really that different? That’s what I am here to dissect. As a user experience designer, I am no Luddite. I love technology! So, why are my assumptions about these situations so incredibly diametrically opposed and my feelings so negative toward companions being immersed in their phones?

What’s different, what’s rational

I’m going to put my negative reaction under a microscope and look at the reasoning behind it. This way, I can decide if it’s rational and valid or not. Perhaps, if I realize that I am being irrational, I can get the hell over it?

Reason 1: technology still feels unnatural

As a species, we’ve been reading, writing, and drawing on paper for over a thousand years. Putting pencil to paper and turning pages feels instinctual. We can imagine Earnest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso sitting in a Parisian dive bar, sketching and writing in a cloud of smoke and creative, companionable silence. It not only seems natural, it seems poetic.

As for me, a 30-something millennial, I am part of that last generation that grew up mostly analog. Maybe I still haven’t really internalized the fact that art and intellectualism can occur on these new-fangled machines?

The verdict on this line of reasoning: IRRATIONAL.

Reason 2: that glow makes us look terrible

I’ll go ahead and admit that this one is irrational, but while self-analyzing, it might play a part in my assumptions.

Remember telling ghost stories around the campfire or at sleepovers? What was the #1 technique for looking like a sinister zombie? Turn that flashlight upside-down and shine it up your nose.

That unflattering upward glow cannot be the sole reason for my negativity, but it could be adding insult to injury. To be fair, it’s not our fault that our iPhone makes us look a little dead.

The verdict: IRRATIONAL.

Reason 3: what we are doing on our smartphones is a secret

Well, it’s usually not officially a secret. In Scenario Two, the companions are likely not trying to hide what‘s happening on their screens, but, by its nature, it’s hidden. You’re across the table from me. I can’t see what you’re doing.

When we are writing or reading alongside one another, we have a vague idea about what the other person is doing. It’s transparent: you are reading USA Today, I am working on my manifesto. But when we are on our phones, we could be doing almost anything. I could be playing Candy Crush, you could be playing the stock market. I could be shopping for shoes, you might be looking at an ex’s Instagram account. I could be browsing Linkedin job boards, you could be browsing houses on Zillow.

A smartphone is a portal to endless possibilities. So the activity of another person on a smartphone is usually a total mystery. When you don’t know where your companion is or what they are doing, you don’t just feel isolated, you ARE isolated.

The verdict: 100% RATIONAL.

It’s not us, it’s our iPhones

OK, I realize that I probably shouldn’t judge those companions in Scenario Two so harshly. Yes, they are isolating each other, but they are not doing so intentionally. The fact that paper is straightforward and a smartphone is a black hole of mystery: these properties are not dictated by the users. They are inherent to the products themselves.

What do we do about it?

Let’s establish a new technology-etiquette rule of thumb. It’s simple: always volunteer what you are doing on your phone to your companions. Bring them into your reality.

“I’m just looking on Yelp for a good place for us to eat tonight. How’s tapas sound?”

“Excuse me for a minute, I need to read this email from Carl. We’ve got a snag in our widget supply chain.”

“I’m checking this family Facebook group for updates on my uncle’s cancer treatment. Yeah, it’s really scary.”

“Reading this Medium article about how iPhones are relationship killers. I’ll tweet it to you.”

You get the idea. You don’t need to give a play-by-play; it just takes a moment to bring down the barriers.

I think if we all did this a little more than we feel is necessary, the isolating nature of our digital devices could be tempered. To your companion, your digital activity is no longer a chasm of dark unknown. It’s just Snapchat between you and your brother.