How the “death of proximity” is really impacting all of our relationships

Written by Jade Beer

Smartphones have brought about the “death of proximity”, so we need a new set of rules to forge meaningful relationships in the real (and virtual) world.

It’s a familiar feeling. You hit the sofa to watch a film together, then barely 10 minutes after the opening credits roll, the person you’re sat with is phone scrolling. The virtual – and unthinkable –equivalent of leaving the cinema.

This is the death of proximity, according to a team of anthropologists at University College London. Just as Boris Johnson is telling us we may throw our arms wide to hug and embrace each other, so researchers are warning that someone who is sat right next to us has “retreated to some other place from which we are excluded without saying goodbye.” 

That’s right: 11 researchers have spent 16 months working on what is the most thorough study to date of adult smartphone use, which they have published in The Global Smartphone: Beyond a Youth Technology

What they found is “a flagrant rupture of conventional etiquette”. And what they have concluded is we need a new set of rules to co-exist in the real and virtual worlds.  

Some of us, those already tired of being ignored or cancelled in favour of a digital competitor, are already forming our own new rules at home and work –whether those around us realise it or not.

“I felt unheard, invisible, and often annoyed because I’d either have to repeat myself or know that he’d only absorbed half of what I’d said because he was looking at his phone,” says Sally Bishop, a nurse from Birmingham. 

“Now I’ll say I’ll come back to it later, when I’ve got your full attention. I think he feels that even half listening is enough, that he’s trying to multitask and he’s capable of doing both. But there have been too many instances of forgotten discussions or agreements.” 

“I felt unheard, invisible, and often annoyed because I’d either have to repeat myself or know that he’d only absorbed half of what I’d said because he was looking at his phone.”

Jayne Hughes, a PR executive from London, agrees. “I will deliberately stop talking mid-sentence until he puts the phone down, it can take a long time for the penny to drop.” 

Interestingly, says Jayne, it doesn’t work the same way in reverse. “I want connection and eye contact to really get my message across. He doesn’t need that from me.”

Are the rules different amongst friends as opposed to partners? “The last time I had someone to stay, I didn’t touch my phone for 24 hours,” say Claire Cochrane, a private chef from Bristol. “I was focused on them – and if I’m invited to someone’s house for dinner, my phone stays in my bag which I dump on the floor as soon as I arrive. The only thing I want to be holding is a glass of wine.

“If I absolutely have to check my phone, I will ask if they mind. The second you do that it takes away the possibility of causing offence. If you have your phone at the table, it will inevitably slip into the evening. It starts small, you’re showing someone a picture or tweet, then everyone is on their phones, you’re disconnected, and you may as well have stayed home.” 

What’s harder, says Abbie, a writer from Cheltenham, is tackling bad phone etiquette if you’re on the receiving end of it.

“I was on a road trip before lockdown with a girlfriend who spent the entire journey from the Cotswolds to London on her phone doing admin, so I basically had no one to talk to. I knew once we arrived, we’d be busy shopping so that car journey was supposed to be our golden time. She’s a serial offender. She did it on a mini break to Somerset when we were sharing a room. I was getting all nostalgic about it being all the best bits from boarding school – biscuits in bed and late-night gossiping – but every spare moment she had she was on her phone ordering clothes and paying bills. 

“Without realising it, she was telling me she didn’t value her time with me. Maybe I should just see her on Zoom?”

But even that medium needs its own new set of rules. Anne Greaves, who heads up a team of marketing executives, has placed new restrictions on her phone behaviour since lockdown. 

“If I’m on a Zoom meeting, I will always use the iPhone facility of ‘do not disturb’. If anything is urgent it can be overridden by the person calling or texting because I’ve set it up that way. I don’t want to be looking at my phone when it pings. But not everyone does that and it’s not generational.” 

You’ve got to find new techniques to manage the disruption phones can cause, says Anne. “If the meeting is scheduled to last more than 30 minutes, then I donate the first 120 seconds to asking everyone to write down the things that are on their mind from the meeting they just finished, or the to-do list for home. Then they turn the note over because it will still be there when we’ve finished. It really helps the concentration, reduces distractions or random phone picking-up.”

For estate agent Lauren Santa, it’s about not elevating the importance of your phone to that of another person. “If I am waiting at a property for someone to arrive so I can show them around, I resist the temptation to get my phone out,” she says. “I don’t want them to feel they’re interrupting me. That’s what the phone becomes. Even if you’re just mindlessly scrolling, it’s like you’re in a conversation with another person.” 

“Even if you’re just mindlessly scrolling, it’s like you’re in a conversation with another person.”

Hooray, a boutique recruitment agency working across the South West are increasingly having to coach managers on phone etiquette ahead of meeting prospective employees.

 Its managing director Richard Arthur, says that despite the assumption that the job market operates in favour of the employer, there is a skills shortage in many sectors that places more power in the hands of the job seeker.

“There have been occasions where I’ve had to tell hiring managers that the applicant was put off joining them because the manager was disengaged during the interview, looking at his or her mobile phone and on one occasion during a Zoom interview, taking another call and actually leaving the interview space. People quite understandably feel slighted by that. Employers cannot afford to be so unaware.” 

A return to basics, being charming, showing someone they’re special to you and interesting enough to hold your attention is key to success. For the sake of our relationships, careers and friendships, it’s worth us all pausing the next time our phones ping and we instinctively reach for them.

Jade Beer is the author of The Last Dress From Paris.   

Images: Getty

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