Think First, Text Later...
"I wished to live deliberately"
-Henry David Thoreau
I had a thought-provoking conversation with one of my clients the other. I was forced to think.
Thinking requires stillness, focus, energy, and effort…something most people are not willing to do these days.
We had some small talk about our dogs’ cute faces and fluffy heads and then she launched in…
“I have a big problem. Friends keep confronting me on something; it’s like I have this pattern and it’s bad!”
She had my attention. I listened as she began to explain…
“I am the worst text-er.”
That was not what I expected her to say,
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My communication is bad! I'm awful at responding to texts! Texting feels like a wide-open, ongoing conversation, making me exhausted. Maybe it's being an introvert??”
Oh, I get it. Ongoing texts interrupt time and space to be alone. That’s a nightmare for an introvert. That’s a nightmare for me.
“You probably would have liked to grow up when I did. A phone stuck to the wall, attached by a cord, and everyone had to share it. Calls were forced to a limited time and place.”
Now that feels like a dream scenario!
And it’s true, I would come home to see the spiral cord winding around the corner, squeezed under my sister's closed bedroom door, and her muffled voice chatting away with a friend. And then...
“Dad, I’m on the phone!" Silence. "Ugh, ok, I’ll be off in five minutes.”
This is how it often went: We would hear a small click interrupt our adolescent gossip. Mid-sentence loud tones of a number being punched square by square until we would yell out,
“I’m on the phone!!”
Someone downstairs picked up the phone unaware that they dropped into the middle of our conversation.
“Oh, sorry, ok. Well, I need to make a call.” And they would hang up.
Annoyed, the conversation would quickly lose its steam and we would close the call…
“Good luck with the essay, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And that was it. Conversion done. The next time we would talk would be after a few hours of homework, dinner with the family, and a good night’s sleep. It sounds like balance. It feels like balance. Space and natural gaps between human connections. Let’s be honest, even extroverts need that!
Pulling from my non-tech-y brain, I attempted to sort through the possible “unnamed” rules of texting that may need to be named for my client. These rules come as a result of not thinking.
As Alan Jacobs says in his book How to Think, we don't want to actually think,
"Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?”
So my client and I began to do the effortful work. To start, I defined three categories of “texts.” We needed something to launch off of:
The practical text that needs a quick answer (“Hey, what time did you want to meet at the restaurant?”)
The meaningless text that doesn’t have an endpoint (“Oh my gosh, this video!!” Or, “Why are so many people annoying right now?!” Or the most nebulous, “Hi.”)
The relational text that leads to authentic connection (“Let’s catch up, I haven’t seen you in a while!” Or, “I just had a really hard conversation with my boss, do you have time later to process it with me?”)
“Which scenario is the one you have the most trouble with?” I asked.
She immediately responded, “The second!!”
Makes sense, there is no endpoint. Filler texts. Being in contact with someone just to be in contact. The texts that we send to avoid being present with ourselves. Our emotions. Our demands. They don’t have an obvious purpose so they suck us into a whirlpool of distraction.
If I had a personal connection to the big guys at Apple, I would suggest a helpful addition to the next software update: the ability to block the #2 texts. Can you imagine a day with limited pointless communication? We have gotten so accustomed to it. With the acceleration of information going into our brains, it would be nice if the pointless stuff was left blocked.
It’s not a surprise that an introvert would feel exhausted by those types of texts. Meaningless texts drag through the day and night and keep us hooked and attached to our devices. That’s never good. For anyone.
Sometimes being healthy in an unhealthy society can make you question yourself. Which behavior is mature? What does it mean to be a good friend? What does it mean to be responsible with our communication? Habits characterized by most people in society likely become acceptable. However, “acceptable” doesn’t mean mature.
It can get confusing.
Alan Jacobs says it well,
"The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.”
What if our phones were left on the counter and we don’t check it for a few hours? What if a pointless text gets left unanswered because we are in the zone cranking out the piece we are writing? Or the painting we are detailing? Or the letter we are working on to a friend? What if work emails aren’t opened on the weekend? What if we choose to be present in our real-life moments? Unhealthy habits, after they become normal, set the standard for expectations. Unfortunately, even the healthy types become unhealthy. Too often, wrong expectations will lead the cultural sway. In fact, we may get criticized for not joining the mass movement of phone addiction. Our friends may reprimand us. Not for talking behind their back. Not for failing to listen. Not for being dishonest, but for not responding to a text that has no real point to it.
Immaturity can become acceptable if we don’t pause and actually THINK about why we do what we do, why we expect particular behavior from people, or what hurt our feelings that probably wasn’t hurtful at all!
Maturity, on the other hand, can look odd. It can seem selfish or rude. It can feel “old-fashioned.” Yet the very nature of ongoing, long texting exchanges or SNAP streaks keeps us from reflective thought and clarifying questions that lead us into wisdom.
So how do we discern between these subtleties?
When society becomes characterized by immaturity, we have to get quiet, think, weigh, and invite healthy conversations with those we admire and respect. We need to talk with people who are truly mature.
Here are three filters to apply to our smartphone interactions:
Let purpose lead the way, not habit or impulse.
Build a foundation of relational trust that secures friendship and protects it from unrealistic expectations. Share openly about your relationship with your device and why you relate that way to it.
Identify when escaping, scrolling, texting, and screen use are becoming addictive. Maybe instead of being mad that someone doesn’t respond to a text, put your phone down, read a book, or take a walk. If that seems odd or uncomfortable for you, you may be too attached to your device.
Ordinary life, simple curiosity, and meaningful interests will do wonders for our relationships, mental health, and necessary sense of purpose. It will surprise you how much life you can find outside of your screen.
Last week I told one of the high school students I work with that I was giving her a personal challenge,
“This weekend, I want you to identify 4 birds that frequent your yard.”
Her eyes lit up with curiosity,
“How would I even do that?!” she laughed.
“You’ll have to pay attention…
Sit still and wait for them to come a little closer to you.
Notice the details of color and markings.”
She was intrigued.
“We can talk about them next week and look at the book I have to figure out which ones you saw. Also, you can download the Merlin app. It identifies birds by their songs!”
She was all in. Inspired and motivated by the challenge.
And for me, these conversations and interactions have me thinking…
Maybe genuine maturity grows and anxiety diminishes when we interact with the texture of the earth…when we look up at the big, broad world of wonder instead of the boring flatscreen of the world wide web…the spinning, dizzying, trapping web.