Stop Being a Freak and Just Look at Your Phone

I really like to people-watch but sometimes it’s the wrong time.

Each week I try to write down 10 observations. It’s an exercise I started during the writing of a failed novel and continued after I gave up. They can be about anything, but the point — the exercise — is to create a log of crisp micromoments that would make a potential future reader perk up and go Oh! I’ve seen that!

Like one time I went to a San Francisco meditation class and some guy kept making passive aggressive requests that began “I would be grateful if…” Later, when he inevitably got into an argument, the guy kept saying the word “humbly,” as in “I humbly disagree” and “Humbly, I think you’ve got it all wrong here.” It was a cartoon version of what one might expect from a guy in a meditation class in a city where people are obsessed with power, but try very hard not to be. So I wrote it down and filed it under “Meditation Guy.”

I keep most of them in a Google Doc. The “Travel” section has observations on airports (where there seems to be an inordinate amount of early morning drinking) and bed and breakfasts (which make me feel like I’m a little kid at a weird sleepover party and want to go home but can’t). Another section, called “On White Trash,” has a description of a dirt lot with dissembled mechanics and dog shit, along with snippets of a conversation I overheard between two cigarette-smoking women: They gossiped about some guy who was “caught in the dirtbike lifestyle” and another who was “Hep C crazy.”

At first the idea was to make the shelved novel better. Later it was to collect observations for a new one. When I stopped writing fiction I told myself that logging 10 weekly moments was a way to maintain creative discipline in the absence of a creative writing project. A more practical reason is that it helps with my day job — I’m a business reporter — by making me better at distinguishing details that evoke a subject (aggressive class action lawyer with a diamond flecked watch) from stuff that is just noise (the meeting featured sandwiches). Lately I’ve noticed that men who have a lot of money but are not conventionally famous frequently begin conversations with the phrase “People often ask me…” Not quite sure what that means, but there you go, I keep hearing it.

Whatever reason I give myself, the truth is I can’t turn it off. I am preternaturally interested in people, which is presumably why I became a reporter — a job that gives me an excuse not just to watch them, but also to walk up and ask questions.

About a year and a half ago, after 10 years at The Wall Street Journal, I quit to cover technology for The New York Times. When I was interviewing an editor asked me how I felt about covering Google, and I gave a long and rambling answer about how I once applied to the WSJ’s packaged foods beat and was despondent when I didn’t get it. The point was that I am mostly interested in people and I have no reason to believe that the people who work at Google are any more or less interesting than the people who work at a packaged foods company, just as there is no reason to believe that rich people are more interesting than poor people, scientists more interesting than factory workers, and on and on.

I mean, think of all the subdivisions even just inside Google. A few months ago I drove to the company’s headquarters to interview an executive. I parked by a group of fat guys smoking cigarettes near a sign that read: “Break the Habit.” Google has 1,001 ways to eat healthy and when you walk around campus you can hear the loud affirmations of a gym class, and here were the rebels, smoking. Smitten is probably an overstatement, but I felt smitten.

I took seven weeks off between the WSJ and the Google job. I did productive things like go to the gym and take a meditation class and read Steven Levy’s “In the Plex” and attend my first Google “I/O.” But mostly I hung out alone and did very little besides destroy my weekly quota. Each Sunday I’d have 15, 20 new things stacked in my list, and I enjoyed long days of people-watching.

One afternoon I walked from the Mission to downtown to log the many different ways people use smartphones to communicate intentions without words. When people meet for coffee, their phones are out on the table. Phones are hidden for a proper lunch, at least until the check comes. Sitting on the grass in Union Square I watched a guy bump into an acquaintance that he clearly didn’t want to talk to. I could tell because as soon as the other guy called his name the first guy pulled his phone out of his pocket. As the conversation wore on he slowly unspooled his headphones as if to say Hey man, I gotta go.

Another nice thing about the weekly 10 is that it keeps me from looking at my phone. It is also a decent excuse to walk to a bar for a solitary drink — one of life’s greatest pleasures and something I did a lot during those weeks off. One afternoon I went people-watching at a San Francisco bar that used to be kind of punk and biker-y but has been softened up by tech money. The exception is on weekday afternoons, which is when I arrived.

Inside, men with sun-faded tattoos sat on a mostly vacant row of barstools. There was also a younger guy who looked like he was trying to be the words “Hella NorCal” for Halloween: He was wearing high white socks, cutoff Dickies, a wifebeater and a Giants cap with the bill flipped up. He looked ridiculous but I loved him because it reminded me of mid-90s San Francisco, which was the last time the city could even squint at being affordable.

And yet, punk or not punk, most everyone in the bar was looking at their phones, and was therefore in the middle of the mobile-centric tech boom I’d just been hired to cover. Even the bartender was zombied-out since there were only a few customers. I kept my phone in my pocket and just looked around at the haphazard collection of stickers and old skateboard decks that I’ve looked at a thousand times before, but never all that intently. I became fascinated with an RIP picture of a big ol’ dude with bad teeth who looked like a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with but also the sort of person whose death surprised no one (I have no idea what the real story is).

The next observation was about me. I had, I’d noticed, become the guy everyone else in the bar was looking at. Maybe it was that I was in jeans and a T-shirt, not Dickies and a wifebeater. But I think the real reason was that I wasn’t on my phone. Instead I was the weird guy on a barstool just sitting there, looking around, making everyone else nervous instead of dithering with technology.

I can come up with a long list of reasons why you should be a lot more worried about people who are on their phones than people who are off them. But culture is a weird thing. Sometimes we want to be pure and above it all, to be observational. Other times we want to fit in. At that moment, in that bar, anyone not looking at their phone was presumed to be a serial killer. So I took mine out of my pocket and looked at it, and everyone else chilled out.

We sat looking downward, and peacefully enjoyed our drinks.

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)