Culture

‘Technoference’ is Real — Here’s How to Deal With It, According to a Modern Etiquette Expert

When is an Interruption OK and When is it Rude?

BY Heather Wiese-Alexander // 04.29.22

In her recurring column, “Social in Security,” modern etiquette ambassador and Bell’INVITO founder Heather Wiese-Alexander walks us through a list of trusted tips you can rely on. Because now that we’re emerging back into the world, we want to do it as the best version of ourselves. This month, Wiese-Alexander is tackling cell phone etiquette, and a little something called technoference.

You’re engaged with another human, mid-sentence, and suddenly they are disengaged, technology-tackled. For a second they glance at whatever beckoned. Remember when this was rude? Is it still? A second seems so small, even justifiable. And, let’s be real. You’ve done it too (or at least, I have).

Where is the line? When is an interruption OK and when is it rude? Are we more accepting of rudeness as a necessary norm? Our increasing ability to communicate in 90 different directions at once is powerful. After all, we are getting more done, living healthier, adding more meaningful relationships, and feeling more fulfilled—oh wait. That’s not what the science says. At all. Power is a funny thing. Something that’s so helpful yet a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Technoference is a word Merriam-Webster says they’re watching, “if only this word had a sick beat instead of increasing relevance.” Yep. Feel ya, MW.

This unfolding path points to destruction on enough levels that it has grabbed the attention and efforts of neuroscientists, behavior specialists, psychologists, parents, teachers, employers, and yes—etiquette experts. Literally everyone has skin in this game. What’s the way to rein it in? Is there a simple solution? For the love, please don’t take away my phone!

Thankfully, loads of research has been happening for long enough that we have some good data with consistent results. You might be surprised at the revelation. Boundaries: good. Reactiveness: bad. See? That wasn’t so hard to understand. To make it even easier, I’m giving you four guidelines to learn and live by. They are rooted in the science of living well. Let’s break it down into real-life situations.

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02.10.22Casamia_Beckley74 (Photo by Rebecca Patton of Beckley)
Casamia founders Marisa Renfro and Caroline Stinson mingling in Highland Park Village — no technoference here. (Photo by Rebecca Patton of Beckley)

1 — The Person Present has Priority.

Ignore the buzz, ding, vibration—whatever just beckoned your attention away from the conversation you are in. Ignore it. It’s always been a negative gesture to look at your watch while you’re in a conversation. Checking the text that came in is no different than checking the time. My favorite tweet of all time was from Anna Kendrick when Apple introduced the iWatch in 2015.

Anna, no truer words. And our sentiments have nothing to do with the price.

But what if…

– This person won’t stop talking?

Great question. You need a rehearsed way out. Many of us are unsure of what to do when we’re caught in a conversation we need to wiggle out of. Find a comfortable go-to script. My friend, Tom, uses this one, “So sorry, Heather, I need to put a pin in that. Let’s come back to it. I have (insert commitment) in five minutes, and I definitely want to finish this later.” The winning elements: Assertive but kind. He didn’t make me feel less important than his next conversation.

– I’m waiting on an important call?

That’s something to say up front. When this is the case, the first time it’s your turn to speak, something like, “before I chime in, I may have to step away unexpectedly. I‘m waiting on a call and have committed to a quick response,” is all you need to say.

Wortham Center empty Houston Grand Opera
The Wortham Center in Houston.

2 — Dark and quiet.

You may know to silence your phone but lighting up your screen is a no-go as well. When you’re in a group setting that involves dimmed lights, whether it’s a meeting, wedding, movie, or another gathering, both quiet and dark are the protocol. If you need to use your device, excuse yourself and don’t start talking until you’re clear of sharing sight or sound.

But what if…

– I’m a doctor and I’m on call?

I get this one a lot. You know your job. If you must take the call, get up and leave. The rest of you are not on call. If you decide to be in this scenario, be away from your phone for the hour or two max that most of these scenarios present.

– I’m a parent or primary caretaker and I’m on call?

Parenting a minor or caretaking for someone presents understandable interruptions. The goal is enough self-awareness to refrain from imposing on those around you. That’s not to be heard as ‘you must go at it all alone’ or a suggestion to hide your issues. The idea is knowing the difference between adulting responsibly and needing to show everyone you are going about your tasks of responsible adulting.

Bela Cooley, Ciara Cooley (Photo by Jonathan Zizzo)
Bela Cooley, Ciara Cooley (Photo by Jonathan Zizzo)

3 — Mind the Table.

Please don’t take this personally. Your phone is dirty. It’s OK, mine is, too. They just are. Our phones are not only potential rudeness temptations, they are dirty little germy things that don’t belong on the table. Yes, even if you clean yours daily. Literally put it anywhere but on top of the table.

But what if…

– I carried my phone in and don’t have a bag or pocket?

Sorry, there are no passes for lack of preparation. Try to find another non-table top solution.

– I need to catch a call, I’m on call, or we’re using it to pull up a menu?

Casually speaking, yes, we all can think of a reason to have a phone out and around during ameal. Do remember they are the least sanitary item you will have around the table (I hope). Do remember that having your phone placed in your bag or in a chair with a simple ping you can hear for that important call that can’t wait until after the meal is the better solution. On the table is still a no. Last, just like the menus of those olden-days of 2019, once you’ve ordered the food, the menus go away. (Remember that?)

 

02.10.22Casamia_Beckley358 (Photo by Rebecca Patton of Beckley)
The scene at Casamia’s Aprés Ski gathering. (Photo by Rebecca Patton of Beckley)

4 — Wean Off the Pacifier.

Social crutches come in all shapes and sizes but none more obvious and tempting than the phone. Let me be the first to admit this one is hard. You’re alone in a crowd, but not when you have a connection to a person through a device. Even if that person is on TikTok and doesn’t see you back. Still comforting. See point number one. The people around you should have your full attention. Even if they aren’t paying attention to you yet.

But what if…

– I’m on the subway?

I’m not talking about that. We’re talking about a social gathering. Although I do advise keeping your head out of your phone for other safety reasons.

– I’m in a very casual place, like a sporting event?

If you’re there to socialize, be social. Social doesn’t mean you’re the center of attention. It might mean you are taking in and listening to something you are only marginally interested in at best. Use it as a learning opportunity. Try to engage where you are, even if it’s just with your surroundings.

 

To sum it up, when it comes to technology, the interruptions aren’t going away. They aren’t even rude. How could they be? It’s how they are received and handled that are key building blocks of your reputation and relationships. Since you, like me, probably plan to live with technology and still want it all—healthy relationships, a palatable reputation, etc., learn these four adjustments. You will see a big difference. If you never learn the right fork to choose or where your napkin goes, learn to practice a good technoference defense. It will serve you well. The science backs it up.

Part of the Special Series:

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