About four years ago, I got my first phone that did anything other than text and call. At first, the sense of connectedness was intoxicating. Email on the small screen had a new appeal. I ate up apps like they were sweet treats. I learned to type with both thumbs, like the kids do. Pictures, videos, links… all shared in the blink of an eye.
But almost as soon as I got my phone, I started feeling subtly off. I found myself checking the screen for missed messages although I knew perfectly well that new messages make sounds. I’d argue that I missed the chime and check again. I started feeling an odd anxiety that wasn’t exactly worry. It was like the tense irritation you feel when waiting to get back test results. You know they’re coming soon but you don’t know exactly when. In this case, it felt like the waiting just went in circles. Message chimed, check it, back to waiting.
I was growing impatient (…for what exactly?). I was growing more critical of others – “I just saw you like her Facebook post, but you can’t reply to my text?” “I like how you replied to his email but not mine.” Each time that I imagined a friend should have reached out to me and didn’t, I felt annoyed. Each time that I believed a friend should have replied to me on my timetable, I got more frustrated. I would never dare communicate it to them directly though, I knew it was my own issue. I was feeling hurt over imagined rejections – figments of insecurity.
The more I used my phone, the worse I interpreted the actions (or, rather, in actions) of other people. Even the people I loved most in the world came through worse on the screen. How could this be? My first theory was that the phone had replaced a more satisfying cadre of in-person interactions. Perhaps my phone had become like a social stunt-double. As soon as I saw it wasn’t the real star of the show, I felt fooled.
I wondered if my feelings stemmed from the faulty communication inherent in mediated interaction. It was so easy – far too easy – to misunderstand one another. One time a friend of mine was waiting outside my apartment so we could go to dinner together. After about a minute, she texted me, “Let’s go!!” Was it a squeal of enthusiasm… or an impatient admonishment? I still have no idea.
I have no doubt that mediated miscommunications do breed frustration with our phones and our friends. But for me, that wasn’t the heart of it. I could forgive any tonal ambiguity as the price of admission to the connectivity jamboree. Poor communication wasn’t my friends’ fault… none of this was really my friends’ fault. The fault lied in my phone’s early promise – a promise it couldn’t keep – that I would never have to feel alone.
I began to recognize that my phone had blurred the line between what I considered “alone” and what I considered “together.” When I was alone, I still felt as if the people in my life were with me. At least, they could be with me if they wanted to be. While this possibility had a rosy hue at first, over time it turned darker. I know my boyfriend can text me, so it means something when he doesn’t. I know my best friend can reply to my message about tomorrow night, so why doesn’t she?! All of a sudden, people were not fulfilling obligations they never knew they had.
Against all logic and good sense, my phone made me feel as if the people in my life were letting me down. Of course, they were not in reality letting me down. I simply had a new feeling now – a feeling that was hard to shake – that silences were full of rejection. Before, if I routinely spoke to a friend once a month, the time between chats meant nothing at all. The silent periods did not imply that she had dismissed me. But now, I had found (or created?) an almost infinite number of opportunities to be disappointed in that friend for her muteness.
This feeling is still something with which I grapple. I will probably always struggle with it as long as I have a phone. I do try, however, to be decidedly alone when I am actually alone. Allowing time alone to be what it is has helped me love time together again. I also try to use my phone in service of making plans to be together in real life, and that’s it. This plays to my phone’s strengths and not its weaknesses, and it’s definitely helped.
And sometimes, in my quiet moments, I wonder if I have a friend out there who’s silently fuming at me for failing to meet an expectation I never knew she had.