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Protecting Our Relationships from the Digital World

As amazing as the newest, greatest, digital device is; I am beginning to get scared of what that could mean for our ability to converse, relate, and protect our most vital relationships.

I was sitting on a bench at the playground one day with a friend watching our children play after school.  My husband was out running some errands for the day and texted me a question about something to buy for the kids.  I was in the middle of a real-time conversation with my friend and I suddenly felt that awkward moment when I needed to respond rather quickly to my husband, but also didn't want to rudely text in the middle of my conversation with a friend.

Over the next few weeks, I started to observe my behavior as well as those around me. It got me thinking, "What are the ethics and etiquette for a digital age that is moving faster than we can socially keep up?"  Something crucial to building and safeguarding community is changing and I am not sure it is worth the "ease" of having everything in the world at your fingertips.  So I decided to try to write a few etiquette guidelines that may help you and will definitely help me.

1. Unless you are looking for a reason to excuse yourself from a conversation, pulling out your phone to text, call, check your calendar, or search something that does not involve an emergency is flat out rude. We need to practice the art of being fully present in the moment with whomever is in our presence.  Whether it is a spouse, friend, or complete stranger, that person deserves to have your complete attention.  If something comes up (like my husband waiting for a response), the appropriate thing to do would be to let them finish their thought and say something like, "I'm so sorry.  My husband is asking for a response on a purchase he is trying to make.  Would you mind if I text him back so I can put my phone away and fully concentrate on what you are saying?"  Then I also text my husband to let him know that I am in the middle of a conversation and may not be able to converse with him right now.  Talking with your spouse ahead of time and setting some rules for situations like this makes it easier.  For example, I let people know that I will not pick up the phone while talking unless it is my husband or kids' school.  Matt and I also have an understanding that we can let each other know we are having an important conversation with someone and will text or call when finished.  We have all been there and can relate.

2. Don't pick up the phone for every incoming call or "ping".  Voicemail exists for a reason.  Unless you are expecting that call or if it is your husband/children or someone else regarding them- either do not take the call, or politely excuse yourself by telling the other person that you need to take an important call.  When an alert comes on your phone and you have to check it, it sends a message to the person you are with that whoever sent you that text or email is more important than them right now.  Do it enough times, and you will start to lose friends.  This leads to #3...

3. You may not be as important as you think you are. Recognize the addiction to "instant access to everything, and everyone's instant access to me".  Facebook and Twitter have convinced us that we have more friends than we actually do.  Twitter even deceives us into thinking we have a relationship with celebrities!  The more "friends" you have, the more relationships you have a responsibility to manage.  Know who your community is and who has earned the right to step into your most vulnerable places.  Not everyone in the world should have access to your moment-to-moment thoughts. I have a friend who protects her family time like a London Guard.  Sometimes I will text her and not hear from her for days.  It drives me absolutely crazy (which reveals entitlement in the addiction), but there is a part of me that loves her even more for that.  I know now to not even call or text her on the weekend.  If it were an emergency, I have no doubt she would call me back and be there because I know my place as a close friend and feel incredibly loved by her.  We are addicted to the spontaneous "ping" of our devices.  Research is coming out revealing our brain lighting up the dopamine pleasure centers of the brain when we get an email or text (feeding us that we are important and needed) yet also creating an addiction to want more.  Twitter is a perfect example in it's limit on 140 characters.  It is not enough and we are driven to click to read on.  Once you see the addiction showing up in irritability when the other person doesn't immediately respond, or the compulsion to check that text even though you are driving, hopefully you will decide to take back your life and control your phone instead of it controlling you.  I have been in counseling sessions where the client will stop talking to do something on their phone.  I have considered trying to have a session by way of texting to see if they open up more- and they are actually paying to have someone listen! 

4. Choose one media at a time. Just because a commercial comes on, doesn't mean we have to fill our time with surfing the web, Facebook, Twitter, or other site.  Look around the room if you are with others.  Does it not seem ridiculous that everyone is on a device while the TV is also on?  Television companies are catching on quickly that the show is not enough to hold attention anymore.  Twitter tags are appearing at the bottom of the screen so you can Tweet about whatever you are watching, making it possible to have "conversation" with complete strangers while watching the same show.  Resist the temptation and actually talk to the person sitting next to you, or better yet invite over some real friends to watch a show with you.  Virtual friends do not replace life-friends.  Unless you are alone, put the phone away.  Which is what brings us to #4...

5. Put your phone away.  In order to protect your marriage and family, consider plugging in your device in a different room at a specific time each evening.  So many of us have replaced fixed home phones with our cell phones (which is a whole other issue: if there is an emergency, will your children be able to find your phone and know how to make a call?).  We have become physically attached to our phones at all times in case anyone, for any reason might need to contact us.  Unless you are on-call for work, or are expecting an actual important call.  Plug it in somewhere where you won't hear it and enjoy the relationships you have around you.  Your marriage and children deserve for you to have dinner with them, instead of watching you have dinner with your iPad. 

6. The ability to multi-task at all times does not give you a free pass on manners. I get it, if I don't jot it down I will forget to do it. The addition of Siri, reminders, calendars, and alerts has made it possible to make a note of something as soon as you remember it.  This is great when you are alone, but extremely rude when you are talking with someone else.  If something during a conversation reminds you of something you need to do later, at least wait until the end of that discussion and ask if they would mind if you make a note in your device before you forget.  Do not take out your phone and start working on it when the other person is in mid-sentence.  Just because you think you can multi-task doesn't mean you actually can and the other person has no idea whether you are texting someone else or checking your Facebook page.  We have become so desensitized to everyone being on their phones we assume we can pull out our device during a conversation because other people do it too.  I see this happening especially to our children.  It is always easiest to hurt those closest to us. Texting was a gift to us "stay-at-home-moms" who were desperate for adult conversation but couldn't be on the phone with a screaming toddler in the background.  But it has gotten out of hand. This leads to #7...

7. Interrupting is still rude. Our culture's multi-tasking and access to infinite information has become a habit.  We seem to be unable to last through a conversation anymore.  Just because something pops in your head does not mean you vomit your idea out before the current topic being discussed is finished.  I have seen (and have witnessed myself) changing the topic before the other person is finished.  We are even willing to stop mid-sentence and Google the topic if we can't finish the thought.  I don't care what Google has to say about it, I'm talking to you and don't want to talk to you while you hold your finger up telling me to wait while you serach "said subject" and tell me what random strangers think about it.  If that's all you know about the topic then let's move on to the next subject. Put your phone away, look into the person's eyes (especially if it is your spouse) and listen all the way through.

8. Who are the people in your neighborhood? I am ashamed to say that I have watched some of my neighbors' lives unfold more through Facebook over the course of this year when they live four or five doors down.  Let's get out of our houses, sit over coffee, and send a real card in the mail for a birthday for a change.  Although I am thankful for the convenience , let's not buy into the lie that it can replace  old-fashioned thoughtfulness and presence.

9. When in doubt, ask your spouse. While you may feel you are doing a pretty good job putting your device away, your spouse (and possibly your children) may have a more accurate picture.  There is nothing more convicting than asking those close to you how you can be a better _______ (mommy, wife, friend, etc.) and here them say, "We would love for you to be on the phone or computer less."  I have even made the excuse to myself, "I just saw my husband on his, so it's okay to pick mine up."  This is not about  introducing guilt and shame, but more so about self-evaluation.  After all, they are the ones feeling your distance while you relate to the virtual world.

Here is a sneak peak of an outstanding video we found featured on Week 14 of ENLIVEN where we encourage marriages to really take a look at what the digital age is doing to our relationships.  Join ENLIVEN for FREE to see your marriage THRIVE.