You are interviewing a candidate for a job in your department. You take your cell phone, turn it to “do not disturb” and place it face down on a side table several feet from where you and the candidate are sitting. This way you won’t be disturbed, and you’ve signaled to the other person that you are giving them your full attention and won’t be distracted by the phone.
Right? Well, maybe not.
Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein studied how the presence of a cell phone affects the way people communicate with each other. Because people use their mobile devices to stay connected with people who are not in close proximity, it’s easy to build a conditioned response to the device and think of it as “everyone else.” As long as the cell phone is visible, even if it is on the other side of the room, it represents its owner’s social network. The whole social network is in the room. Which means that the phone will trigger thinking about other people and other events outside the immediate context, which will in turn divert attention away from the experiences that are occurring at the particular time and place.
Some of this may occur consciously, but some of this “not being present” occurs unconsciously. Social psychologists, including Przybylski and Weinstein, theorize that these devices can, therefore, have a negative impact on person-to-person relationships.
To research the idea, they ran two experiments. In the first experiment people who did not know each other were assigned to pairs, asked to leave all their personal belongings outside the room, and then told to “Discuss an interesting event that occurred to you over the past month,” for ten minutes. For half of the pairs, there was a mobile phone (not belonging to either person) on top of a book. The book was on a nearby desk, but not in the direct visual field of the participants. The other half of the pairs had the same room setup, but without a mobile phone.
After the ten-minute discussion, each participant individually filled out forms to measure things such as relationship quality, closeness, and positive affect.
The pairs that had been in the room with the mobile phone felt less close to each other, and rated the relationship lower than the pairs in a room without a cell phone present.
In the second experiment, some of the pairs were instructed to discuss their “thoughts and feelings about plastic holiday trees” (casual condition). Other pairs were instructed to discuss “the most meaningful events of the past year” (meaningful condition). The surveys were the same as in the first experiment, except some new surveys were added to measure trust and empathy.
When the mobile phone was in the room participants gave lower ratings on all the measures, including the new trust and empathy measures. But this effect was stronger in the meaningful condition pairs than the casual condition pairs.
The researchers concluded that simply placing the cell phone in the room interfered with the formation of a new relationship, and that the negative effect of the cell phone was stronger during a meaningful conversation.
So you and that candidate won’t bond as well if any phone is visible.
What to do? This may sound drastic, but if you want to establish great rapport then here are some takeaways:
- When you’re establishing a new relationship with someone, don’t have a cell phone in view.
- When you’re trying to deepen an interpersonal relationship or get someone to trust you, don’t have a cell phone in view.
- When you’re in a meeting, model the behavior by not only turning off your cell phone, but actually putting it out of view.
- When you’re running a meeting, ask everyone to turn off their cell phones and put them out of view.
What do you think? Does the presence of a cell phone change your conversations and rapport-building?
Here’s the research:
Przybylski, Andrew K., and Netta Weinstein. 2013. “Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 30 no. 3, 237-246.
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