Tracy Emin’s new art installation at St Pancras station has hit the news, as her work always does. I have no expertise with which to judge her art, though I certainly appreciate and respect her boldness, individuality and devotion to producing something that we will notice and make us think. But the message of this piece of art spoke to me for a very specific reason. “I want my time with you” is directly relevant to any of us who have ever tried to speak to another person and had that communication wrecked by a pinging sound from a phone. As soon as one person’s phone pings with a notification of any sort, the attention of both parties is broken, gone, destroyed. Suddenly, they are not with us fully any more.
It’s rude; it’s irritating; it’s damaging to communication, attention, friendship, connection. Sherry Turkle talks about how it changes the nature, depth and topic of conversation in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, which I throughly recommend. The relevant point is that when there’s a phone present, we instinctively keep the topics shallow, because we know we may be interrupted. That’s devastating if true: the idea that we avoid deep and meaningful conversations because we believe we won’t get to finish them?
If I’m spending time with a friend over coffee or a meal, call me selfish but I want that time to be about us, only us, sharing, talking, discussing, thinking. Being with me for that short time should be enough, if you like me enough, if I’m important enough to you. But if you have your phone on (and it will be you, because I don’t) you are saying that I am not, even for these few minutes, important enough to you. You are still hungry and greedy for the pleasure of all your other friends who aren’t with us but perhaps you wish they were. You are asserting that everything else in your life is so much more important than me and so you have to be able to access it, now, all the time, even though I might have something really important to say or ask or share. Of course, you might well have really important things going on in your life, things that need your attention. If there’s an urgent need, tell me and I’ll be very sympathetic: maybe we can even spend the whole session talking about what’s going on in your life – that’s OK; I can do that. But if it’s not really urgent, as in needs-to-be-sorted-now, please may I have a bit of your time myself? Maybe, even, it will help you if you can properly switch off – see what I did there? – from the difficult thing that’s on your mind. Just for a bit.
You are only giving me a bit of your attention, in that small slice of your time.
You do not value me enough.
Every time a teenager tries to talk to a parent and the parent’s phone pings and the parent glances at it to assess the importance of this ping, the parent is saying: “I am not sure you are more important than this email or text, even though I don’t know who this email or text is from. I cannot prioritise you.”
Every time a person holds a phone in hand or has it visible on the table while talking to a friend, the person is saying, “I am not sure this little bit of time with you is important enough to me because something much more important might be about to come my way in the next few minutes. You must accept that part of my attention is on my phone and if it pings I will have to look at it.”
Every time a device is there in the conversation, the device owner is saying, “You are not quite enough. I may be giving you some time but I am not giving it to you fully or properly. Be satisfied with less than me.”
“I want my time with you” is to say, “Please listen to me and let me listen to you. I want to talk to you. Am I important enough to you for that, just for these few minutes or whatever time we have?”
It’s not too much to ask, is it? And yet, over and over again, by having their phones switched on and visible in the conversation, tacitly people are saying that it is too much.
And do not even get me started on people who have their phones on and respond to texts/emails during a business meeting or during a talk that someone else has worked hard to prepare. How phenomenally selfish and disconnected and lacking in empathy and self-control is that?
If you want to listen properly to your friend, your student, your teenager, your partner, your colleague, the human who is taking the trouble to talk to you, put your phone away. Just for now. Just for this little time you have together. Be fully with each other. Focus. Give.
We need our time with each other.