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Conversational Jerks

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A friend called me up one evening, barely concealing his exasperation. “I screwed up my presentation in class,” he confided disappointedly. “No one was even listening.” He had stayed up all night to prepare for his presentation, and went into that morning eager to test his ideas.

When he finally got to the speaker’s stand, he found himself before a dozen students whose faces were hidden behind laptops, and whose thumbs were too busy skating on the black mirrors of smartphones.

It is a disconcerting time to be standing before any audience. Today’s speakers from the most esteemed lecturers to students nervously delivering their maiden speeches can no longer expect attention from the audience as a given. We live in a technological universe in which we are always connected, always communicating, shifting between conversations offline and a dozen conversations simultaneously happening online. For better or for worse, it has never been easier to tune out of a conversation.

A deafening silence hangs over classrooms as the virtual space clutters with chatter. We are sitting in the audience, our minds wandering about like busy bees taking technological sips in the virtual flowerbed as the speaker’s voice eases into a comfortable white noise in the background. Occasionally we look up and afford him a moment of attention, judging within that few seconds if he is worthy of continued attention, and at the slightest pause or stutter we switch our focus elsewhere.

Technology has made it possible to customize our lives: In between pauses we send emails, run online errands and browse Reddit. Life is too short to waste a moment on a boring conversation; technology is liberating: it gives us the control we want over our every second of our lives.

Well, yes, except that might also have made you a conversational jerk. There are times when tuning out behind gadgets can be rude. Ever been to a party where you’re talking to somebody who’s looking over your shoulder, or just when you’re about deliver your punch line lets a third person jump in on the conversation? Essentially you are doing the same thing, except from behind your device.

You could be hurting your friend, who expects no more than basic courtesy or a nod of affirmation from you at some point in his delivery. The laptop screen can feel like Harry Potter’s invisible cloak, but it isn’t: Your uninterested face is in full view, signaling your absence.[y1]

Then again, should we kid ourselves that we have someone’s attention just because they are looking in our direction, and their thumbs are still? I will admit that I am not the best listener in the world: There are times when I accidentally space out, when I am too sleep-deprived to pay full attention, as much as I want to.

And, on some occasions, an overt sign of inattentiveness can be a protest against power, a deliberate signal to a speaker to please just stop talking.[y2]  Maybe technology just offered us a more polite way to tell somebody “you’re boring” than ostentatiously reading a book or stomping out of the classroom. Not to mention the fact that it is quite an effective remedy against the Zzz monster on a sleep-deprived morning.

Which is why, for all my frustration with technology, I couldn’t quite make up my mind. If respect must be earned, then perhaps attention should be too. Can we blame people for tuning out if the speaker didn’t put in any effort to engage? When does that become disrespectful and make us conversation jerks?

Some teachers have resorted to phone stacks, or imposed a no-laptop rule because studies have found in-class multitasking to be distracting for other students. I am not a fan of overly restrictive rules, simply because I think there is too much diversity in circumstances for general dos and don’ts to be useful.

But here’s an experiment I did over the past few months: I have gone back to the old-school way of taking notes in class with pen and paper, resisting the temptation to pull out my laptop or phone, even during moments of boredom. It has worked out great so far, though, as with anything, you lose some and you win some.

The downside is that I can’t Google questions I have on the spot and have to leave them until after class. The upside? I am taking better notes, drawing more connections in lectures, and learning what makes a presentation boring so I know to avoid those pitfalls. Above all I have become more patient, to learn to appreciate the unedited moments– moments in which a speaker stutters or goes silent, and reveals himself in a way that would have gone unnoticed had I shifted my attention elsewhere.

There is no cut-and-dried rule one can rely on– it is something that requires constant experimenting, good judgment and sensitivity to expectations in different situations. My only hope is that we figure out what works best for ourselves, making conscious, deliberate choices that also consider how it affects people around us. In other words, think before you toggle and switch. Some conversations are worth your undivided attention.

Contact Chi Ling Chan at chiling@stanford.edu

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.