Many of us have had the frustrating experience of being in the middle of a conversation with someone, only to have that person answer a phone call or respond to a text. It can be discouraging to feel like you’re competing with a cell phone for someone’s attention…and losing. New research shows, however, that a mobile device doesn’t even have to be ringing or buzzing to ruin your conversation.
Suppose you sit down with a friend for some coffee and a visit, and he places his cell phone on the table. Just having it sit there—even if it never rings—makes you feel less close and connected to your friend, according to a recent study by psychologists Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein. It also leads you to judge the quality of your relationship more poorly. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the presence of a mobile device had the most negative effects when people were discussing personally meaningful topics.
Why should the mere presence of a cell phone have these effects? The researchers speculate that seeing a mobile device primes us to think about wider social networks, which takes our attention away from the face-to-face conversation we’re having at the time. Seeing the cell phone sitting on the table may also remind us that we can lose our partner’s attention at any moment.
This finding doesn’t mean technology is bad for relationships, per se. What it does suggest is that we can improve our relationships by using technology more mindfully. If you’re expecting an important call or text to come during a face-to-face conversation, letting the other person know in advance will minimize the intrusion when that call or text arrives. Otherwise, make the choice to prioritize your conversation and keep your phone out of sight, even if it’s not out of mind.