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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

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Blue Streak May 19, 2012 at 02:36 PM
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to take every call RIGHT NOW. But if we think about it we just keep ourselves overly stressed out when we don't take a break. Most of what we grab our phones for can wait. So, I keep my phone on silent unless I know there is a real emergency, like having a loved one in the hospital, and I keep it in my purse during social outings. I try to keep my phone conversations to myself by making calls before I enter a store and I never answer the phone when it's my turn at the register. Sales clerks deserve my full attention, too.
big sky May 19, 2012 at 02:36 PM
so true, there is never peace from work and interruptions are never ending.
Joyce Bone May 19, 2012 at 03:05 PM
It's a love/hate relationship. lol.
Kevin Fong May 19, 2012 at 03:30 PM
sometimes I feel the cell phone buzz when I don't even have it with me.
Mosie May 19, 2012 at 03:35 PM
It is addictive and fun to get texts. It makes you feel good because someone wants to hear from you. And, it's less of a commitment than talking ont he phone. We were recently at a family dinner with about 20 people. There were 5 kids ranging in age from 15-20. Every single one of them sat at the restaurant dinner table texting with their friends instead of talking with their cousins. I found this rude and sad and a very bad habit becuase what it says is I'd rather "talk" to my friend 50 miles away than talk to you right across the table from me.
Mosie May 19, 2012 at 03:39 PM
Also, some people are so rude about cell phone use. They will talk in elevators, in restaurants, in stores, on airplanes, etc. I went on a hike with a friend a few months ago and she answered 5 cell phone calls while we were up on top of the mountain! So rude! And, why do people think they need to increase the volume of their voice by a factor of 10 when speaking on the phone so we can all hear their conversation?
Mosie May 19, 2012 at 03:45 PM
I could go on and on about the rudeness of cell phone use. This same friend who accepted 5 calls on top of the mountain answers her phone every single time it rings, regardless of where she is or who she is with. I was out to lunch with her and several other women one day, and she took a call, saying that "it was really important". She excused herself and talked on the phone for 10 minutes, only to come back to the table and tell us that that was an old friend and she wanted to catch up. Another lady at the table let her have it. She said, "wait a minute, are you telling me you left our table to talk to another friend?"
Colleen Walsh Fong May 19, 2012 at 03:55 PM
I'm glad your friend spoke up, Mosie. My kids tell me that for young people it's just their way of life.
Nanette Littlestone May 19, 2012 at 04:34 PM
I swore off cellphones for the longest time, finally relenting, but only when my husband upgraded his phone. I got his old iPhone. Now here I am responding at the airport. Still don't text and won't. Don't want to be tied to the phone. By the way, I think they DO cook your dinner now. LOL
Colleen Walsh Fong May 19, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Well, Nanette, if they use your new ecookbook made for download to mobile devices, they'll be darn close.
Diane Gornell May 19, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Being old enough to remember pre-cell days, as teenagers we (my sisters and I) were just as pavlovian when our land line rang only we had to run to pick up the receiver. This was also pre-answering machine days. Woe if we missed a call, how would we know what boyfriend's call we had missed! I got my first pay as you go cell phone when I had to drive a long distance to work; I needed it should my car break down. Then I insisted my husband get a cell phone so might as well sign on for a plan. As my daughter started babysitting, of course, she needed one. Then with teenage driving, she really needed a phone with gps in order to be safe. My husband and I now have 'old people' phones that don't have many features: making calls, primative contact list; calendar and so slow texting capability. It's positive feature is that it's little, lightweight, fits in my pocket, and has large keys for old hands and eyes.
Diane Gornell May 19, 2012 at 06:08 PM
My daughter's phone on the other hand, does everything but is so expensive that it needs a super strength case for protection and insurance in case she loses it. Every once in a while I look at her phone longingly; oh to have the gps, the camera, and the ability to check on when the movie starts. Then I remember that it's big. It won't fit in my pocket. And much of the time it runs out of charge because shes using that data feature so much for what, to my eyes, is useless time wasting. It annoys me when I can't reach her at the press of a button (she's #3 on my speed dial) and when she doesn't get my texts that I have so laboriously typed out. One night while my husband and I ate dinner at IHOP, 6 teens came in, sat down and ignored each other with eyes glued to their phones. I felt sad as I remembered all the lively conversations and debates about weighty life issues that my friends and I had as we sat around a resturant table. It does make me happy though when I can call my friend and say "Are you up for yogurt (insert any day of the week). I'll pick you up in 20 minutes."
Colleen Walsh Fong May 19, 2012 at 06:30 PM
I have to admit, I've got mine with me all the time, and I've got all the good stuff on it!
Angela May 19, 2012 at 06:32 PM
I love my iPhone, but not just for calls or texts. I use it most when I'm traveling somewhere (Yelp) to find the best restaurants or the map feature to help me find my way somewhere. I also love CardStar app, which means I don't have to carry those annoying loyalty cards on my key chain - so old school! I never board a flight without my Delta app, which tells me if I'm upgraded, if I'm delayed AND it's my boarding pass (that I never lose!). I could go on and on, but I am astounded at how cool the iPhone is and how many things I can do with it. Sure, I could use a key chain loyalty card, walk into random restaurants when traveling and use a real paper map and a real paper boarding pass, but how fun is that?!? Long live the iPhone and all the other cool tech toys that I can't wait to discover in the future! :)
WIT May 19, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Colleen, you're so right about this love/hate relationship I have with my cell phone. I refuse to learn how to use it's features. I'm tired of other peoples phones going off on Sunday mornings, usually during the minister's sermon. And I sure wish the #%!# thing didn't cost so much. I much enjoy reading your Eve blog (unless I disagree) and your usually insightful observations.
Colleen Walsh Fong May 19, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Thank you! I appreciate all readers and enjoy comments whether pro or con.
Yvette May 19, 2012 at 07:20 PM
I love my iPhone and use it's apps all the time when I'm alone but always have it off when I'm with others or in a store. I won't go out with people that won't turn their phone off. If they object I say, " were you raised by wolves?".
Jerilyn Willin May 19, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Euwww...like a phantom limb! Spooky.
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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