Proving Pavlov

Cell phones are here to stay, but must we answer them every time they ring?

By Colleen Walsh Fong

Buzzes, music snippets and even the sound of an old-fashioned telephone fire off everywhere these days like the aura that accompanies a migraine. I feel the vibration of an incoming text in my pocket where I’ve situated my most faithful companion. Let’s face it. Cell phones are everywhere and they are here to stay.

In their salad days most belonged to business professionals, “set free” by the device that ironically tethered them to their jobs 24/7. They quickly replaced beepers as the tie that bound. I got my first cell phone, which was about the size and weight of a brick, in the late 1990’s. It was for “emergency” use only, and resided in my car’s glove compartment.

When my daughter reached an age suitable for making independent forays around the local mall, both she and I were armed with cellular devices so I could keep tabs on her safety. The Nancy Grace show had yet to debut, but milk cartons carried stiff reminders of the price parents could pay for allowing too much freedom. I started carrying my phone in my purse, keeping it with me during waking hours, but leaving it in the mudroom when I slept.

As more teens, including mine, began to carry the devices I noticed that my kids never telephoned friends. They preferred to text. I worried they were becoming antisocial. Hiding behind electronic devices that allowed evasion of consequences for impolite communiqués. In other words, they could drop a stink bomb and ignore the resultant “wtf?!!!” from the recipient. I used to confiscate the devices at night and read the texts. My years studying foreign language helped me decipher the new one they used. Still, some acronyms and abbreviations remained a mystery. It didn’t take long before a few subtle questions (or so I thought) alerted them to the need to delete their texts before the nightly surrender. I didn’t like this new world. Not one little bit.

My daughter’s part-time job allowed her to purchase the first iPhone. That was a harrowing time for me. I couldn’t figure out how to use the touch screen. I watched furtively for weeks until I finally observed the opening action. I think I inadvertently erased some of her stuff. But there was so much on the phone she didn’t even notice. The whole world was at her fingertips:  music, internet access, telephone, texting, camera, voice recording, clock, alarm. It did everything but cook her dinner. And that was no problem—she could Google a pizza delivery place and “dial” the number by touching the screen. She stopped wearing the expensive Betsy Johnson watch I gave her for her birthday. That phone never left her hand, so she always had up-to-the-minute time and temperature information.

She “talked” to friends with her touchscreen. I had to ban the phone’s presence at the dinner table. Her pals would sit together with eyes in their laps, surfing their phones in silence. My kids were wired in, but completely tuned out. I harrumphed when they slid the arrow from left to right to read a text or answer a call in the middle of our conversation. The rude action horrified me.

Soon the iPhone3 came out. My daughter upgraded and donated her clunky, limited iPhone1 to me like I was a Salvation Army drop box. When my watch battery died, I stopped wearing one and began checking my phone for time and weather. After all, the satellite was more accurate than our outdoor thermometer or the three clocks in our kitchen appliances which all bore different times because I had to set them in sequential order. I got into the habit of leaving my phone out on my desk when I worked so I could check the time—and my email—every few minutes. That little buzz was addictive.

I started texting with my kids rather than calling them to give a 10-minute curfew warning or ask them to stop by the supermarket on the way home from school to pick up a critical dinner item I’d forgotten to buy. I found they responded to texts with a 100% greater frequency than they did to phone calls.

My friends and I conferred over lunch or happy-hour cocktails about the silly way in which our kids answered every call, even in mid-sentence, as if their lives depended upon it. We vowed we would never become similarly obsessed with a microchip.

But, a funny urge began to come over me in the middle of lunch, a writing project, or even a movie. What text might I be missing? Had someone posted something on my Facebook wall? Sometimes I’d rush a social event, or go to the ladies room so I could check. It wasn’t long before I noticed my own friends responding to the buzz, fishing their phones out of their purses in the middle of lunch to take a call or answer a text. “One minute,” became a frequent interruption to the conversation. No wonder none of us could keep a steady stream of thought anymore. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’d trained ourselves to the buzz instead of the bell. We don’t salivate. We slide the arrow.

Have we chained ourselves to our phones 24/7? What do you do to unplug?

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Jerilyn Willin May 19, 2012 at 07:54 PM
I got an iPhone because my employer was paying the bill. then we parted ways and now I am "stuck" with a great phone but a big bill every month (not as big as i would have with a teenager though). i get very irritated when I'm with someone and they not only answer their phone, but are constantly checking it. None of us are surgeons or ER docs, so we CAN turn them off occasionally. Phones are just a habit like cigarettes. Yes, I know I sound like a cranky "oldster"
Suzanne DeCuir May 20, 2012 at 02:59 AM
I think I read somewhere that the sound of the buzz/ring tone signally incoming mail actually causes a little release of endorphins - makes me feel like I'm controlled by brain chemicals more than I realize. I try to put my phone out of reach when driving because I don't want to be tempted to start reading texts while driving - the whole addiction is insidious.
AL May 21, 2012 at 11:32 AM
Unfortunately, the "antisocial" aspects of cell phone use are quickly becoming the norm because the younger generation is so accepting of them. Think back to 8 or 10 years and how the cell phone etiquette complaints of that time are now commonly accepted practices. And this rude behavior is ever-evolving. Now when I call someone it is completely normal for them answer without saying "hello" (or anything else) to me, and then make me wait 30 seconds or more while I listen to them wrap up a conversation with someone else...in this case I'd rather they just not answer at all, or at least just say "hello, can you please hold for a moment?". The sad reality is that we just have to get used to it, because it isn't going to change and it will likely get worse. I guess I'm left with little choice but to adapt to this type of behavior, at least in the form of accepting it from others, but don't expect the same behavior from me in return. BTW & FWIW, I'm not a cranky old timer and I believe smartphones are a wonderful and convenient device, but there's no reason why anyone can't control their reliance on them and not allow them to be an intrusion on things that are of greater importance.
Colleen Walsh Fong May 21, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Thanks Al. I couldn't have said it better myself.
Aarti Nayar May 22, 2012 at 11:09 AM
Thanks for the. thought provoking insights you present Colleen....enjoyed reading it


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