An elevator ride isn’t very long. Depending on the size of the building, from the time you hit the button to call the elevator until you walk out to your floor, you have what? Two, maybe three minutes max. It’s just short enough to initiate conversation or acknowledge the presence of your fellow elevator riders, but not long enough for any meaningful exchange to occur. If you were to speak, what would you even say? How do you gauge when to start talking? Whom do you direct your speech to: a single person or everyone in the elevator? And then begs the question of where to look. At the ground? At the door? At the digital display? Or God forbid, you make eye-contact with a fellow rider. These dilemmas are just some of the factors which shape the complexity of the elevator situation. Luckily to avoid this awkwardness, there appears to be an unspoken rule governing conversation among strangers in the elevator which simply is “Don’t talk and don’t look.” It is for this social convention that within just seconds of riders shuffling into an elevator, a curious phenomenon unravels: One by one, each elevator-goer reaches into his pocket or her purse and produces a smartphone, and just like that anti-social force fields are instantly erected.
When did we become so dependent on our phones as social crutches? Nowadays when we don’t want to talk or when we want to avoid awkwardness, we get on our phones. For me, the following process has become a nervous tick: I pull out my phone, check the time, unlock my phone, flick through a quick rotation of my favorite apps and then put my phone back only to repeat the whole thing a few minutes later. Phones have become easy tools to feign preoccupation. It seems to be that it also matters not whether the user’s phone activity is actually productive; he or she could be mindlessly swiping through their home screen and a bystander would know no difference. As long as the user looks busy, he or she is too busy to be bothered.
This model, pulling out your smartphone as a safety blanket in times of social discomfort, is ubiquitous. You see it in dining halls in lines for food and especially when there is a lone diner; in gyms, while a lifter is resting in between sets; and also in transit, walking to and from classes. It may not seem like it, but there was a very real time when such devices were nonexistent, and it’s insane that such a time was just a decade ago. For me, it’s unfathomable to imagine a world without these portable distractors, which begs the question, “What did we do before smartphones?”
Surely, there must be an answer to that, and it could very possibly be answered by many older adults today, but even for those adults who grew up without smartphones, the wisdom of combatting awkward situations has been lost. They too, like us of the younger generation, have been rendered slaves to the smartphone. I can only speculate as to how such awkwardness was dealt with. Perhaps there was no awkwardness; people back then were simply more social and got by with lots of small talk. Or, perhaps people then were just as antisocial as they are today and used other things (wristwatches, newspapers, books, etc.) as distractors from social confrontation.
I challenge you to pay close attention to how you react when you’re in an awkward social situation. Note when you feel an urge to pull out your phone, and instead of pulling it out, try an alternative activity. The next time you walk to class, admire the winter scenery or count how many hats you see. And the next time you get into an elevator, consider starting up a conversation with a stranger, even if only briefly. Only with such efforts can we even begin to answer the daunting question that plagues our generation: “What can we do without smartphones?”
Charles Yu is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences. Hailing from sunny Palo Alto, California, he frets for his first Ithaca winter and will most likely be found huddled up next to the radiator in his room in the dead of winter. He enjoys twenty-minute-turned-two-hour naps, Oolong tea and Amazon Prime two-day free shipping. His posts appear on alternate Tuesdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.