Texting at funerals

Dr. Sherry Turkle is worried.  The MIT prof (and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other) told an interviewer from The Verge recently that one of her main concerns is how to get families to talk to each other at the dinner table – instead of texting. What also concerns her is that young people may think of communication as being a Like button.

“People are texting at funerals! (Only during the boring bits, they protest).  But things worth doing (like grassroots political campaigning) often require boring bits. For good stuff to happen, people need to talk to each other.” 

And clicking on that Like button may in fact bring unforeseen consequences. Consider, for example, the six Virginia employees who were fired by their boss, Sheriff B.J. Roberts. These workers, according to the case files, “hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office.”  How? By Liking the Facebook page of the man who was running against Roberts for the office of sheriff.

A young friend whose mother died recently told me how touched she had been by the “thoughtfulness” of so many who had left condolences on her Facebook page after she had announced her Mum’s death.

“Thoughtfulness?”  Clicking on the Comment button is hardly “thoughtful”.

Here’s what “thoughtful” is, folks:  it’s picking up the phone or going over in person (if you live nearby) to talk – and more importantly, to listen – to your friend’s story. It’s making time in your busy day to stop at the drugstore to select a sympathy card. It’s writing (by hand, with a pen) a personal note to your friend inside the card. It’s buying a stamp and looking up a mailing address and, finally,  dropping that card into a mail box.  It’s taking the time to order flowers or a fruit basket. It’s making muffins or a casserole or a plate of sandwiches and bringing them over to your friend’s home.

That’s what “thoughtful” looks like.

By comparison, hitting the Comment box and banging off a quick “Sorry for your loss!” on Facebook is NOT thoughtful.

It’s merely a reflexive response on autopilot. It requires, in fact, little if any thought. It’s as personally involved as clicking the Like button.

The book called “Social Trends in American Life” suggests that a shocking 28 percent of us know none of our neighbours by name. We may keep in touch with faraway “friends” on Facebook, but not so much with the folks who live on our street.

When tech entrepreneur Nirav Tolia noticed that we increasingly seem to prefer rubbing elbows online – instead of in real places where real elbows might actually rub – he saw a business opportunity that resulted in his creation of a social network called Nextdoor. It attempts to webify the original social network, in case you really would rather talk online to your closest neighbours instead of chatting to a real live person over the fence or in your condo elevator in order to share babysitter recommendations, meet for after-work drinks or sell that bookcase.

And as Dr. Turkle explains in her book, Alone Together:

“Winston Churchill argued that we shape our buildings, and then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies. Technology has become the architect of our intimacies.

“Online, drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse the scattershot postings on a Facebook wall with authentic communication.”

“Just because we’ve grown up with the internet, doesn’t mean the internet has grown up”

As much as aging Luddites like me may rail against the decline of face-to-face communication and the simple courtesies of human interaction that we grew up with, the writing is on the (Facebook) wall.

Sadly, as Massachusetts physician, author, researcher and UMass professor of epidemiology Dr. Marya Zilberberg quoted recently in this truism from Max Planck:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Think about this.  It means that Dr. Sherry Turkle and others like me who share her concerns about this growing sociological trend of texting at funerals, and on first dates, and while out for walks with friends or family (even when you have actual living breathing human beings right beside you) are wasting our breath when we hold up a hesitant hand to say: “Hey, wait a minute!”

We hesitate, in fact, to raise a hand in protest because we believe it would be impolite to do so. Instead, we let the rudeness inherent in these mobile technology behaviours go on.

Dr. Z. has also observed:

“The digital revolution will continue its break-neck pace regardless of my opinions in its quest to take over the world.”

We are in fact a dying breed, we who value things like a phone-free zone at the dinner table (that’s if we can even sit down with our families at the dinner table anymore).

And when we finally die off completely, texting at funerals will no longer be something even worth remarking upon, even to USB geeks.

In fact, they’ll likely be texting at mine.


11 thoughts on “Texting at funerals

    • The world of technology is indeed changing, Dr. Joe – and as Dr. Zilberberg writes, it will “continue its break-neck pace regardless of my opinions”. I find it both alarming and very, very sad.

  1. There comes a time when common sense and moral judgement must prevail. Texting at funerals? Why bother to show up if you can’t turn that thing OFF for just a few minutes?

  2. This does NOT invalidate some of the important points you’re making, but I am surprised you don’t seem to acknowledge at all that there is some level of cognitive dissonance in posting this particular argument on a blog and then engaging in discussion with others about it in a comments section.

    I realize that you are mainly arguing that some real life interactions should be somewhat sacrosanct (e.g. Dinner with family, funerals, …etc) and that being fully present in some activities is very important. However, you are choosing to devote some portion of your existence to an online life that by necessity takes time away from the interactions you praise in the post. And, some would consider that already part of drinking the kool aid.

    What are you doing in the non-digital world to promote the interactions you laud? Describing that in more detail might be of even greater value than blogging/commenting in the digital world about how important it is to not be overtaken by interacting in the digital world.

    • Dear Anonymous,
      That was quite a curious leap to assume that my online blogging here “by necessity takes time away from the interactions praised in the post”. Hardly, unless I was typing this at the dinner table, or at funerals, or while out for walks with friends or family. Which, of course, I’m not. Please re-read the post, as it appears you’ve missed that point. You’ll just have to take my word for it, as all who know me will attest, I spend plenty of in-person face-time with those I care about discussing exactly the same things Dr. Turkle is warning us about.

  3. Carolyn,

    I share your sentiments, but I don’t think either of us (or Sherry Turkle) matters very much.

    Technology has *always* been changing, and will continue to change (at least I hope it will; the alternative seems more dire). Today it’s the rudeness of texting at funerals or on dates or during meetings (something that people in my office thankfully don’t do, and not because we have a rule against it). Most young people don’t find these behaviors bothersome. At some point other technologies will come along that *they* find bothersome: staring far away into the augmented reality of tricked-out contact lenses with a heads-up display; or talking silently to someone far away via neural implant; or bio-synthesizing the morning’s coffee on the hovering nano-molecular coffee press with interactive AI. Who knows? Whatever it is, they’ll hate it or worry about the fate of civilization. And then *they’ll* die. And more technologies will emerge. Rinse and repeat.

    I’m not belittling the very real concerns that accompany new technologies. The best thing we can all do is to learn to use these technologies mindfully, with intention and attention. Because they aren’t going away.

    My personal approach: Turn everything retro. Keep the Twitter, but make everyone use rotary phones* to input their 140 characters. We can call it “ro-Tweeting.” The hipsters will love it.


    * Because my mother was frugal, we had rotary phones until 1984! I nearly broke a foot several times when I yanked the base off the phone table (remember those?) while trying to talk in another room. I don’t really miss them, but there was something tremendously satisfying about the clicking and spinning of the dials.

    • Ed, you are, of course, quite right. Sigh… Did you catch the recent New York Times piece on ‘device-free zones‘?

      Your comments on rotary phones reminded me of a yard sale our family hosted a few summers ago in which I was selling an old rotary phone (we’d been moving it from house to house long after all our phones were touch-tone). A woman and her young-teenage daughter stopped by to check out the phone on our sale table; the young girl asked: “But Mum, how does it WORK?!” The mother had to carefully demonstrate inserting her pointer finger into a numbered hole and pushing the rotary dial to the right. The girl was thunderstruck! I decided right on the spot that I had a real collector’s item on my hands – and removed the phone from the table. Maybe I’ll bequeath it to my heirs someday – in case your ro-Tweeting idea doesn’t catch on . . .

  4. Nice piece. I think the occasion determines the etiquette (and we have a similar rule at our dinner table, a carry over from when I was growing up that we would not answer the telephone at dinner. My mother used to say – and this was well before voicemail – if it is important, they will call back).

    On the other hand, email, when used correctly, or comments on a blog, can be very meaningful and authentic communication. Certainly my experience with cancer treatment, and email was less intrusive and energy draining than phone calls asking about me. But of course, when I was stronger, I wanted the more personal touch of phone calls and walks.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Andrew. In our house, we have always had a house rule similar to your mother’s wise one (which sounds positively foreign to many people): ‘Don’t answer the phone just because it’s ringing.’ We are puzzled, for example, by movie scenes in which even the most intensely romantic moment onscreen can be instantly interrupted by a telephone – which of course would be answered. I’ve visited friends who leaped up (sometimes several times during the visit) to answer a ringing phone only to take messages for their teenage children. Isn’t this what answering machines were invented for? Personally, I like email these days because I’m awake by 5 a.m. or earlier and very few of the people I contact want me to call them at that ungodly hour!

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