What to Answer: Your Phone or Your Wife?

A new study suggests ignoring someone to check a digital device may actually damage your relationship. When did technology start trumping respect?

Justin Guariglia/Getty

“I’m sitting on a toilet talking to you right now,” says Joseph Grenny co-author of four New York Times bestsellers: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer, and Change Anything.

Laughter, his own, shatters the silence that follows. “OK don’t worry, I’m joking.”

“Every single time I’m in an airport bathroom I hear someone talking on the phone from their stall,” Grenny says of his quip.

But there is a more serious point to the potty humor.

In a new study released Thursday called Digital Divisiveness, Grenny delves into the vast array of inappropriate ways we ignore others for technology, something he refers to as Electronic Displays of Insensitivity or EDIs. The results of his study are staggering. Of the 2,025 people involved, 89 percent reported damaged relationships due to friends and family ignoring them for technology, a phenomena that 90 percent of respondents witness every week. For one in four, that’s led to a serious fight. In one example from the study, a wife described emailing her husband from across the dinner table—the only way to get his attention as he “buried his nose in his Blackberry.”

One thing that’s not included in Verizon’s two-year plan is a much-needed phone etiquette guide. Without one, we’ve let our phone-loving hair down and decided that anywhere—the bathroom, the grocery line, a funeral, in bed post-sex—is an acceptable place to talk, text, and Facebook. “It’s forcing people to be rude who don’t intend to be,” he says. “Electronic displays of insensitivity feel different from personal displays of insensitivity because some of them are not intended. People that are being obnoxious don’t know it.”

Self-described as a social scientist for business, Grenny was not shocked to see 63 percent of respondents choose a meeting space as the most common place technology is abused. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only place. A whopping 67 percent notice it at the dinner table, 52 percent during customer service interactions, and 35 percent while at church. But at 93 percent, the most alarming number is also the most dangerous: driving. Now the leading cause of car accidents in America, the National Highway & Transportation Administration (NHTSA) says it’s to blame in roughly 1.6 million car accidents each year.

Giving his respondents the option to share specific examples left Grenny with a wealth of EDI horror stories. “One of my favorites was a person answering their phone during a funeral,” he says. “The ringtone was ‘Gentleman, Start Your Engines.’”

Other anecdotes included someone’s pastor interrupting their private conversation for a social phone call, and a boyfriend spending an entire anniversary dinner on his blackberry (leaving the girlfriend crying on the shoulder of the waitress). Ranging from mildly offensive to potentially catastrophic, they all point to the same underlying theme: technology trumps decency.

Ironically, despite what technology bleeding into our personal lives suggests, we know when its OK—and when it’s not—to use our devices. Of those questioned, 90 percent agreed that using technology while at the dinner table, driving a car, at school, church, or during a customer service interaction is inappropriate. But at work, on an airplane, or shopping through the mall? Sext away.

While the majority may secretly agree on when phone use is acceptable, they certainly don’t impose it. When asked how the respondents handle an EDI when confronted, one in three of the said they ignore it—a reaction motivated both by the knowledge that it will soon be over and by fear of offending the perpetrator. “These are areas where we overwhelmingly agree we shouldn’t be using technology. There is a social norm, there is consensus, yet we don’t adhere to it,” Grenny explains. The dirty look you give the loud talker on the bus or the person holding up the line isn’t doing a thing, he says. “Silence is permission.”

With 87 percent saying that the intrusive use of technology was worse than just one year before, the problem is becoming increasingly damaging. Greeny, for one, is confident that we will fix it. “Overall society is getting better. If someone is rude to someone else on Facebook, other people will jump in. They play the role of polite border guard—and it works,” he says. “It’s time we learned to speak up and confront electronic displays of insensitivity so that civility and technology can peacefully coexist.”

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Greeny suggests simple things, like signs at checkouts reminding customers to get off their phones, as possible solutions. But for those who only have eyes for their smartphone, there’s a quicker solution: someone finding an app for that.