I Check My Phone While Out With People and If You Don’t Like That Please Don’t Hang Out With Me

I recently made a Facebook status/Tumblr post that read as follows:

Since APPARENTLY this has become a huge contentious debate all over Facebook, let me make my position on it clear:

1. If we’re hanging out in person and you want to check your phone, go for it. If you need to take care of something on your phone, go for it. If you want to text someone, go for it. If you get a call and want to take it, go for it. Hell, feel free to take out a book and read it if that’s what you feel like doing. I can survive the temporary loss of your full attention and you don’t need to justify it to me every time you decide that there’s something more important in the world than me. :)

2. If we’re hanging out in person and you snark at me about using my phone, make me feel bad for occasionally needing a moment to withdraw, get annoyed that things come up in my life that I need to take care of immediately (either because they’re time-sensitive or because I know I’ll worry and be unable to enjoy my time with you anyway if I don’t take care of it), or otherwise act like you’re entitled to my complete and undivided attention at all times just because I agreed to make plans with you, you’re making it less and less likely that I’ll hang out with you again.

3. I know some people are fond of assuming that others need their assistance “disconnecting” from technology or setting their priorities straight, but that’s between me and my hypothetical therapist and is none of your business. And if it’s that offensive to you that I check my phone sometimes while out with people, then you take care of your OWN needs by choosing not to hang out with me rather than expecting ME to take care of your needs by changing my interaction style.

The point of this post wasn’t so much to convince anyone of anything as to let my friends know where I stand and to let them know that they are free to do these types of things (“tech-diddling,” as one called it) around me. It was also to warn people who find this unforgivably rude that I’m not the best person for them to make social plans with. That’s all.

Unsurprisingly, this got a lot of pushback, the nature of which was also unsurprising. So I’m going to expand on it a little.

First of all, a lot of people responded with something along the lines of, “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” Yes, I have perhaps considered that, or else I wouldn’t have written the post. The fact that some people find it rude is not an argument against my own choice to not find it rude, and my own choice to try to associate with people who feel similarly.

Responding to this post with “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” is equivalent to responding to a post called “Why I Think Justin Beiber’s Music Is Actually Great” with “Have you perhaps considered that some people don’t like Justin Beiber’s music?” If I found something so self-evident that I was literally unaware that a dissenting opinion even exists, there would be no need to state my own opinion publicly and justify it. Furthermore, the fact that it’s rude is the majority opinion, so it’s more than a little condescending when people assume I’m so clueless I don’t even know what the majority of people think about a topic that often comes up in conversation.

Second, I found that a lot of people were very quick with anecdotes about that one person who spent the entire dinner or party or coffee date on their phone without paying any attention to you. I can agree that this person is behaving rudely, though I’d be more curious what’s going on for them that’s making them do it than I would be interested in issuing a blanket condemnation of their behavior. But in any case, the vast majority of social-time technology use is nothing of that caliber. The posts and articles that prompted me to make that post to begin with were about trends like having party guests put their phones in a basket at the door so that they have no access to them the entire time, or having the first person to so much as glance at their phone have to pay for everyone’s dinner. What the hell? There’s a difference between glancing at one’s notifications or shooting off a quick text and spending the whole time “glued” to one’s phone like a teenager in a stupid cartoon about teenagers.

There’s also a difference between suddenly taking out your phone and engaging with it while your conversational partner is mid-sentence, versus waiting for them to finish and saying, “Excuse me, I need to check this right now,” and doing so. There’s yet another difference between frequently spending lots of time on your phone during social gatherings, versus telling your friends, “Just so you know, I’ll be checking a lot on my friend who’s going through a hard time,” or “Just so you know, I might be on my phone a lot because it helps me relax when I get stressed in social situations.” Kinda like I’m doing here. Communication! I love it.

Third, a bunch of people started distinguishing between acceptable reasons to check one’s phone and unacceptable reasons to check one’s phone. Family emergencies, work obligations: acceptable. Checking Facebook, sending a tweet: not acceptable. Here are some of my own reasons for checking my phone during social things:

  • I’m an introvert and get overwhelmed if I don’t have regular moments to withdraw into my own world.
  • If I’m bored, my mind quickly drifts to really unpleasant thoughts and my mood plummets, and checking my phone helps me avoid being bored.
  • Perhaps you said something really hurtful and offensive but I don’t want to derail the entire social gathering, so I retreat and calm down by distracting myself with my phone.
  • If something’s going on in my life that’s coming up on my phone and it’s very stressful, dealing with it immediately will help me be more present for you afterwards as opposed to worrying the entire time and ignoring everything that’s going on.
  • I don’t want to be overwhelmed by tons of notifications and emails when I get home hours from now.

I am in a better position than you to decide when I need to check my phone and when I do not.

Fourth, some people thought that “I’m going to check my phone while with people” means “I will sit there texting and Facebooking while you try to tell me about your breakup or your depression.” Again, things like this are very contextual. There have been plenty of times when someone said, “I really need to talk to you about something” and set up a time with me and sat on my bed or my couch and told me about it. You can bet that phone shit was on the other side of the room during that whole conversation. But when we’re getting lunch or hanging out in a big casual group of people, it’s a different situation. Anyone is welcome to ask me for what they want, including for me to not check my phone while they tell me about something, and I will almost always say yes.

Fifth, some people thought that checking your phone while out with people is inherently, automatically a sign that you don’t value them or find them boring or don’t want to show them that you care. As my friends and partners would hopefully attest, I show my love, care, and attention in many, many ways. I don’t think I need to list those ways here or justify myself to people, but if someone in my life wants to know how I feel about them or wants me to show them love, care, and attention in ways I haven’t been, they are always welcome to tell me that. I would also hope that they will believe me when I say, “Me checking my phone will I’m out with you doesn’t mean I don’t value our time together; it means ________.” That’s what I’m doing here. I’m saying that when I check my phone, it’s because I have my own needs that I need to take care of. It’s not you, it’s me.

Here’s what it really comes down to: people’s feelings of being neglected or ignored or treated rudely when a friend checks their phone are real and valid. I’m absolutely not here to say that those feelings are wrong. I am here to say two things: 1) it might be worth considering other possible ways to interpret someone’s phone-checking, and 2) even if you still think it’s rude and wrong, maybe you should hang out with people who feel the way you do, and I should hang out with people who feel the way I do.

Cuz the thing is, there are a lot of things I find rude that other people don’t seem to, such as being given unsolicited advice, having people try to psychoanalyze me, and being touched without my permission. I am welcome to make the case that these things are rude (as I often have), and others are welcome to tell me that they will continue doing so anyway, and then I am welcome to stop spending time with these people, and they are not welcome to try to guilt me into spending time with them anyway.

The wonderful thing about having so many great friends who understand the way I communicate is that I get to carve out a social space that operates by the rules we prefer. Some rules that other people have, we do not: for instance, the rule that checking your phone in front of people is wrong and that talking about one’s mental health problems is generally inappropriate and that sex is something to be kept private. Other rules we have are ones that other people don’t: for instance, that you should ask before giving someone a hug or otherwise touching them, and that you should communicate as clearly as possible rather than playing mind games or expecting people to guess your feelings.

Some people don’t want to play by these rules and they don’t like the fact that we don’t play by their rules. That’s okay.

What’s not okay is this presumption I encounter so frequently that checking your phone in front of people is inherently rude, rather than rude because some people (not all people) have coded it that way. And given that 89 people liked the original Facebook post (way more than most of my posts get), I’m clearly not some solitary weirdo on this issue. I say this not to brag about my Facebook following, but to emphasize the fact that many people agree with this view and want to socialize in this way.

Ultimately I’m not comfortable with blanket condemnations of behaviors that are not intrinsically hurtful to people. There are times when I think it would be wrong for me to check my phone, so I don’t. There are times when I think it’s okay for me to check my phone, so I do. The set of times when I think it’s okay is much greater than the set of times that many other people think it’s okay, and I disagree that that makes me automatically wrong. Maybe we just have different preferences and expectations for social interactions, and if those don’t correspond very well, we’re better off not hanging out together.

I would also like to increase the acceptability of the fact that most of us are not always fascinating and scintillating conversationalists. I’m sometimes bored around people I generally like a lot. People who generally like me a lot are probably sometimes bored by me. If I’m boring someone and they don’t want to tell me so or change the topic, I’d rather they do something to avoid being bored, because I don’t want my friends to feel bored. (And honestly, telling someone directly that they’re boring you is even less acceptable than checking your phone while you’re with them, so that’s not really an option most of the time.)

I think a lot of the furor around people who check their phones while socializing is stemming from the idea that if someone’s agreed to make plans with you, they owe you 100% of their attention at every moment of the time you spend together or else they’re not “respecting” you. That’s probably not even possible, and many people who do not check their phones simply let their minds wander anyway. But more to the point, I don’t think that agreeing to spend time with someone should imply that if your attention strays from them at any point, you’re not fulfilling your end of the bargain. I don’t want my social interactions to be so transactional. I don’t want to do things out of obligation.

Besides, I have spent many, many happy hours with friends and partners working on our laptops in silence and speaking briefly every once in a while, and I value that time as much as I value the times when we’re talking animatedly and nearly interrupting each other because we just have so much to say.

I don’t think there has to be only one acceptable way for healthy, mutually respectful social interaction to look, and I’d like to spend my time with those who agree.