The Plugged-in Paradox: Why Always Being Connected Makes It Harder to Connect

Take a moment to look around the next time you're in a meeting, at a social event, waiting in line or walking down the street. You'll likely find yourself surrounded by people staring at a smartphone or other digital device. Chances are you'll join them. What's going on here?
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Take a moment to look around the next time you're in a meeting, at a social event, waiting in line or walking down the street. You'll likely find yourself surrounded by people staring at a smartphone or other digital device. Chances are you'll join them. What's going on here?

Technology's hold on all of us is powerful -- and according to a new book that's getting a lot of attention - that hold may be harmful in both our professional and personal lives. In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle suggests that with the advent of smart technology and the ever-present digital distractions in our pockets and purses, the "fear of missing out" has emerged as an almost infectious cultural tension. As a cousin to boredom, the fear of missing out drives many of us to our devices to check emails, log onto Facebook, hop on an app or consult our RSS feeds. Like yawning, it feels contagious.

This isn't connection -- this is interruption. Worse, the message we send to others when we constantly check our devices in their presence is that we fear we've made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.

The Myth of Multitasking

As if the fear of missing out isn't reason enough to explain our device addiction, it has a corollary, too: the idea that we can focus our attention on several things at once. In a world of countless screens and news feeds vying for our attention, we've convinced ourselves that multitasking isn't just something that's possible, it's a virtue. However, research shows that multitasking is a myth. It's performance-destroying, not performance-enhancing. It divides our attention, splits our focus and spreads us too thinly.

The breakneck pace that drives our society, and all too often our workplaces, throws up roadblocks to meaningful face-to-face communication. So we rely on shooting off a quick text in the name of productivity and efficiency. We can tap out a response in less than 30 seconds and get back to the other five tasks we were working on. Some might argue that this is a perfect example of engaging with our peers. Yet, at a deeper level, this robs us of a crucial chance to understand the human complexity of the world around us and truly engage with our environment.

Maybe it's time to try stepping away from the productivity and efficiency of your desk now and then, and open ourselves up to cultivating relationships. It may take more than 30 seconds, but the benefits are compelling.

Your Presence Is Requested

Real connections and real conversations require real "presence." This doesn't mean physical proximity - although that's often ideal. One of the benefits of technology is it lets us connect with people near and far. "Real presence" happens in conversations when we are fully engaged.

Engagement means actively listening to what's being said, not just for an opportunity to insert yourself into the discussion. It's about listening to other people's' needs, tone, frustrations or aspirations and reading their facial features and body language as they speak. It's listening to understand on a deeper level, and that requires your full presence, not just being present.

One way to ensure you're doing this is by putting down your devices. Close your browsers while you're on a call to avoid distraction. Leave your phone and laptop at your desk when you step into a conference room so you aren't tempted to sneak a glance. Implement a no-device-at-the-dinner-table policy. Turn off your PDAs an hour before bed and clear the mind.

Here are a few suggestions to help make the technology detox more manageable and natural:

  1. Strengthen -- and lengthen -- your attention span. Make it easier to go unplugged by challenging yourself to do without the devices - at home and in the office. You can start with an hour or two and work your way up, but like breaking a caffeine addiction, this will take consistency and dedication.

  • Push yourself to have one "real" conversation each day. Get beyond the surface-level small talk and really listen to your peers -- offer advice later.
  • Create connections where they haven't existed. Go out of your way to meet with someone you don't closely work with and have them tell you about their job, challenges and successes.
  • Become interesting by being interested. Ask questions of others; go out of your way to learn what makes them tick. Displaying curiosity about life, work and those around you will lead people to seek your input.
  • Help others cut the Wi-Fi umbilical cord. Politely remind those peering into the black mirrors to look up at the real world around them. Obsessive device check-in has often become second nature, so a reminder may jar them back to Earth.
  • Do more that requires you to be fully in the moment. Attend a live performance. Read a book with actual pages to turn. Watch a TV program without your tablet handy. Let an actual window become your screen for a while.
  • Embrace solitude and take the time to digest your own thoughts and questions. Solitude is what allows us to further develop our sense of self, tap into creativity and reflect on the bigger picture. Often the best ideas come to us when we're in the shower or just drifting off to sleep because our minds are free to reflect and make connections.
  • Let others know you value their input and engagement. Some individuals use devices as a crutch in uncomfortable situations where they might feel their participation in conversation is either unwanted or unneeded, or even when conversation itself causes discomfort. A nice reminder that they are, in fact, valued members of the dialogue can go a long way to breaking the habit.
  • Our little glass screens can make it easy for us to feel separated from our own world, making us feel like we're on the wrong side of Alice's looking-glass. Plugging in doesn't have to come at the expense of other options for tuning into the world, like relationships, for example. Being disciplined about how and when we use our little glass screens may be one of the most important ways to stay connected to the world around us.

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