Stay in Touch Not by Phone

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A cartoon (originally from Shutterstock) of two older people getting a message on their phone.
Staying in touch with parents?

Dear Ms Smartphone: How to stay in touch outside of phones? My kids are in their thirties, mostly grown up and have good careers.  At least once a day one of them sends a group text from their smartphone with a picture or a joke. The pictures are typically of a great meal, pretty scenery, or funny pets. Sometimes there are jokes.  I enjoy the texts and our group exchange. It’s a nice way of dropping into their adult, daily lives. But, since they do not live very far, I suggest on numerous occasions that we get together and set up a regular family visit. There is extreme resistance and I am continually told that they have busy schedules.  For me, this smartphone communication is not enough. Mimi, Boston

Dear Mimi: Your question is really “Why has this smartphone become our primary means of interaction?” Families that live far apart or are stationed overseas have to depend on voice and, more recently, video calls to stay in touch. But, when we live closer together, why is the phone substituting for meeting in-person with each other?

To some extent this is a generational issue.  Many younger people feel that the technology- smartphones- are a means of staying in touch with each other. If they change jobs or move to a new community they can maintain a “persistent relationship” with the people they left behind. They may perceive that the “persistent relationship” also applies to their immediate family circle. 

Locked DOwn?

Although DearSmartphone, by definition,  puts devices at the center of relationships, it is necessary to ask, in an old-fashioned way, if your kids have other issues that keep them apart. I am not a therapist, but this one (link here) asks all the right questions about hidden resentments, hurt feelings, and neediness. If you follow the therapist’s advice, you will probably be having those difficult discussions….over your phone!

Keep in mind that smartphones with cameras and text are new- most families probably didn’t have them ten years ago- so it is hard to know how they change our personal lives and interpersonal dynamics. Much has been written about the risk for human communications: the lack of emotional, face-to-face conversations; the ability to be bored; the accelerating quest for new stimulation.  In face to face conversations, we have eye contact, we react to the tones of another person’s voice, and we sense their body movements. We lose that on our devices, even with Zoom or Facetime.

Perhaps using our phones to replace human interaction has happened faster than we ever thought……

Look Forward

Do your best to make a case for visiting with each other:  explain that you miss the spontaneous interactions, the sense of touch and smell, being able to share physical things (a book, a meal, a gift) or ask for their hands-on help with software. If your children were teens or pre-teens, you, as a good parent, would be actively regulating their digital lives and how much time they spent online. As the parent of adult children, it’s more difficult, but you have the advantage of having grown up with a time BC (before cell phones) and experiencing wholesome family-time across generations. Press on, for over an extended period, excluding real-life contact and non-verbal cues will harm your relationships even further.

Voice Calls on Phone

Talk…talk…talk. ! It feels so wholesome to connect with friends near and far.

An infographic from AT&T called Network Insights. It compares a day in late April, 2020 with average calling and wifi use. The pandemic has surged network use.
More phone traffic during pandemic (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic my phone started to ring more often, and I got nice voice calls from my family on the other coast, from my college roommate, and even from relatives overseas. Now it seems like I am getting less real calls and more fake ones, like robo-calls. I enjoyed catching up with friends on the phone and having long conversations. But, is that over now? Rachel, New York

Dear Rachel: Hopefully people will emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for how to use their phone to renew and sustain relationships. Going forward, you must be willing to initiate those personal calls, as well as receive them. It’s a revival of that old AT&T slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

But first, you are spot-on about the frequency of voice calling during the pandemic. 

Network Gains:

 AT&T reports that between mid-March and May 1, wireless calls (for home and business) peaked at 44% above typical levels and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.  In the same period Verizon experienced about 800 million daily calls, double the number they traditionally handled on Mother’s Day, the busiest calling day of the year. 

The pandemic makes us all more aware that relationships are  fragile and precious. We worry. And, we seek more direct knowledge and experience by checking in with people from other parts of the country. The sound of a familiar voice is comforting and human.

Voice calls can also fill a vital need, someplace between the digital world and the personal one. 

People Gains:

During the pandemic more people are  at home and fewer on- the- road, so, to coin another telco slogan, they ‘Let their Fingers do the Walking.’  Lots of family members share a single slow Internet connection, so voice communications is more dependable. Also, people are tired of being online so much so voice calls provide a break. 

But, now, as things open up- how do you make the phone calls keep happening? It may depend, in part, on your age group.

Ringing forward…

If your friends are Boomers or older, maybe set up a regular time or routine for a call, say at a fixed time each week. But if that doesn’t suit them, text your friends first, and set up a time to talk, maybe the next hour, or the next day. These days people can answer a phone call anywhere (at the beach, in their car, in the bath) so it makes sense to text first, in advance of a voice call.

Second, if you have younger friends, or kids, think of a different strategy. Perhaps when you call, start with Facetime or a similar video program. But then, as the conversation proceeds, ask if you can switch out to voice. That way you stay current with their technology, and they stay current with you. The pandemic has helped younger people become “less allergic” to voice calling, or maybe just more familiar with it.

Whichever method you find for maintaining voice calls, do not get in the habit of placing these from your car. First, these are vital connections so they deserve your time and attention. And, if it’s meaningful, and life is, don’t risk the cognitive distraction. It’s important to preserve the strong relationships we have developed during the pandemic and do so safely.

Should Couple Share Screen?

A good looking couple sitting on a couch, announcing a zoom meeting they will hold for the RockChurch. This  was posted  on twitter.
Couples sharing screen from Rockchurch- San Bernadino, Ca.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I co-founded and run a small charity (HouseOfGoodDeeds.org) building community and helping others through altruism. We’ve been growing lately, partnering with other organizations and expanding our offerings. We have occasional small videoconferences with our organizers and volunteers, 3-5 attendees, but we anticipate bigger turnouts soon. My girlfriend is one of our main organizers, and we often are in the same place when these meetings are scheduled. She thinks it’s appropriate for the two of us to share the screen together, while I think it’s more professional for us to each be on our own devices for group calls. Who’s right? Leon, NY

Dear Leon: I  checked out your site and kudos for helping out so many people in need. You must be even busier here in the time of Covid.  You raise a fine question about digital etiquette and why your girlfriend wants to be on the videoconference, with  a single device. 

It’s worth exploring why she sees this is a value added proposition. Try to tease out her reasons and see if they make sense. Perhaps she is striving to make it look like TV news or the late night shows, where commentators and experts sit around the table and  chat. Maybe as the charity grows, that will happen. 

But, for today, here are few things to think about: first passwords and the security you have on the device. Sometimes couples go through turbulent times, and you don’t want your charity to be in jeopardy. This can never be easy for couples are joined at the  digital hip.

View it as a Visitor?

If unity is your main goal, then maybe the shared screen is the right decision. But, look at your meeting as if you were a visitor. Some platforms ‘zoom’ into the voice so when the two of your are online together that could be confusing. What is the partner who is not speaking doing? And, are the two of you in full view or cut-off, particularly with picture- in -picture? In that case, you might need to sit further from the camera. It’s essential that you make the quality and professional appearance of the video conference your primary concern.

View ExpaNSIONS

During Covid, churches and charities have found novel ways to be tech-savvy and engage new audiences (or lapsing ones). Here’s a headline: When God closes a church, he opens up a browser window!  Can you take a lesson from them and explore new roles that  will be complementary for your business such as  private chat rooms, or additional screens with pictures and text? The two of you could work together to plan better online meetings amplified by more screens (just make sure she does not zoom bomb you!)

On a personal note, I can honestly say that during the lockdown, my husband and I share a screen, but only for virtual  happy hour. If I had to do that more often, I am sure I would want bigger technology and a larger drink.