In 2019, let’s learn to be more available by being unavailable

Don’t be afraid. Do it. Say it. “We need to take a break.”

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What do all those friends have in common? None of them are looking at their phones. (Photo credit: Phil Coffman)

Is it me or has Simon Sinek’s popularity skyrocketed this past year? Having first heard about him back in 2017 when a friend recommended his bestseller “Start With Why”, I haven’t been able to go a week without seeing one of his YouTube videos shared on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Hell, Sir Richard Branson himself invited Sinek to guest edit his Virgin website for their new spotlight series of 2018 called “Fulfilling Potential”.

But all of this recognition comes with great, much-deserved merit. Simon Sinek has, in his own right, established himself as one of the most influential and outspoken writers and speakers of our generation.

He tells it how it is: we’re addicted to our phones. But the most alarming issue in all this isn’t that we’re unaware of it — we just seem to not want to care about it at all.

Are you guilty of it as much as I am?

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Simon Sinek during a TED talk in 2015 (Source: TED)

After spending three Christmases away from home and missing my niece’s first Jingle Bells experience the previous year, I dug into my rainy day funds and used a couple of days left in my annual leave to book myself a last-minute ticket back to France for a short but much-needed trip to see my family. Despite losing two days due to long layovers in India and domestic travels from one side of the country to the other, I felt immensely grateful to be spending the holiday with those whom I love and missed dearly.

I only had 6 days to spare — two with my grandmother, and four with my sister, her boyfriend, and my niece — and surely planned on making the most of them. Everything was going great; I was playing with my 14-month-old angel for days, catching up with family members, cooked, ate copious amounts of croissants, jogged, and laughed. Although it had been well over two and a half years since I had last seen them, it felt as if we had only been separated for a mere few weeks.

My attention, to my own surprise, was fully devoted to the people I was surrounded by. Until… the inevitable happened.

As we sat on my sister’s couch, three cups of tea on their coffee table while BlacKkKlansman played in the background, here I was, crunching over to the side of the couch typing a text message with my right thumb to someone whose name I can’t even recall, hoping no one would bust me. And yet… despite my over-exhausted attempt to go incognito, my sister called me out on it:

“Can you stop looking at your phone??”

These are moments my sister and I have cherished for years, and on what was possibly my shortest visit ever planned, here I was, sitting on her couch and prioritizing my phone for someone located over 9,000 km away over my own sibling.

“There’s a subconscious reaction to these devices when we use them. What if I were to hold my phone while I’m talking to you? I’m not checking it; it’s not buzzing; it’s not beeping… I’m just holding it. Do you feel at this moment that you’re the most important thing to me right now? No you do not, because there’s a subconscious reaction we have to the device. When it’s out, it makes the people around us feel that they’re less important.” — Simon Sinek

I, as much as the other person in the room, know how it feels.

I remember vividly spending my birthday dinner and drinks with two of my close friends in New York City a few years ago, sipping my cocktail and crushing ice cubes as loudly as I could while they, oh so gracefully, ignored my presence completely (or at least for a few minutes which, to those resisting the urge to look at their own devices, can feel like ages.)

This has now become my biggest pet peeve.

But when that happens and everyone around you is on their phones, what do we do? We pull our phones out. And we feel stupid for it.

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Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

We walk over to our table at a restaurant and as we’re about to sit down, everyone puts their phones on the table. We pretend not to notice anything until the small green LED light pops up to notify us of something and then BOOM, we grab it and check it. Guess what you just did? You just told everyone around you that they’re not that important.

Have you ever sat at that table, asking a question and waiting for an answer in vain as you observe your surroundings only to realize that no one even paid attention to a word you were saying? How did that make you feel?

Every second of silence creates a dreading sense of void that we believe can only be filled by the act of looking at our own phone, opening apps we don’t even want to open but do so anyway just so we can kill time and hope that someone else will put their phone down again, offering the opportunity to say something and finally get a response. And that’s what kills me more — time. Or rather the lack thereof.

We are throwing chances to build meaningful, genuine human connections with one another out the window and for what? Photos and videos of cats we’ll never get to pet? VSCO filters we can’t seem to decide on so we can update our Instagram as soon as possible because God forbid we’ll start losing hundreds of followers if we don’t post anything before 8PM?

Are we doomed?

I would be a hypocrite if I pretended to have never done anything like this before; after all, I did just admit to prioritizing my small personal screen over the bigger one my sister and I were trying to enjoy watching together over a month ago.

Over the years I have felt remorse and apologetic; angry and lonely. But I’ve also learned from my mistakes and those of others.

Let’s start small.

(1) For short social gatherings, including breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks: put your phone on airplane mode.

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Airplane mode

I’ve been doing this for a few months and I can’t tell you how much more attentive I’ve become. I actually listen to what others are saying; I smile back at them more; I ask more questions, and I make more plans. And let’s be honest here: unless you’re a CEO, there’s no way you’re THAT important that you can’t spend even just half an hour disconnected from your phone to enjoy quality time with other human beings.

(2) If you can’t bear the thought of not being able to access the internet, turn your sound off to silent mode and put your phone away.

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Silent mode

Putting your phone on silent mode and leaving it on the table doesn’t do much since you’ll be able to look at the pretty LED notification light. Put it in your pocket inside your jacket, or pants, or purse, or anywhere else safe. You might be surprised when you realize that well over an hour has passed already without your even thinking about checking your device.

(3) If you really do have to use your phone, apologize for doing so.

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“Really sorry guys, I just have to send this quick email now for work and then I’m done.”

“My mom just messaged me and we’ve been meaning to schedule a time to talk this week, let me just confirm it with her now, I’ll be quick.”

Granted, this isn’t ideal, but it’s far better than saying nothing at all which, to me, is completely disrespectful. Transparency is key here, especially if it can ease our worried minds once we know you’re doing something more important than refreshing your Instagram feed.

(4) Don’t be afraid to call your friends out on it.

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

How can we expect the behavior of others to change unless we have an open conversation with them about it? Be the friend they deserve by asking for their full attention. How they decide to respond to your fair demand may reveal uncovered secrets about your friendship.

In the end, it’s about bringing it back to the roots. Don’t you miss the “good old days”? When we never worried about anything other than going to school, playing outside and eating.

Let’s bring them back — even for just half an hour over a meal. Let your friends know how important they really are.

But most importantly, let’s put our devices away.

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Constantly experimenting with life.

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