Digital Divisiveness: Electronic Displays of Insensitivity (EDIs) Take Toll on Relationships

Provo, Utah, March 19, 2014 – Sandie sent her husband an email during dinner asking if they could talk. Even though he was sitting across the table, it was the only way she could get his attention as he buried his nose in his smartphone. Kelly can relate. While discussing a very personal matter with her pastor, he interrupted the private discussion to take a social phone call. But it’s hard to top Dan’s recent experience. While attending a funeral for a friend, another attendee’s phone went off just as the casket was leaving the service. The ring tone was “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

According to a new study by Joseph Grenny, author of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, 87 percent of respondents say electronic displays of insensitivity (EDIs)—or the intrusive or inappropriate use of technology—is worse today than it was just a year ago.

What’s more, the online survey of 2,025 people revealed that these EDIs aren’t just annoying—they’re also damaging our relationships.

Nearly 9 out of 10 people say that at least once a week, their friends or family stop paying attention to them in favor of something happening on their digital devices. And 1 in 4 say EDIs have caused a serious rift with a friend or family member.

Ironically, while most people’s moral compass seems to be in the right place, their actions suggest they have little regard for, or are completely unaware of, socially acceptable uses of technology.

According to the study, More than 90 percent agree that people should not answer text messages or check their social media profiles while at the dinner table, while driving a car, while at church or school, or during a customer service interaction. And yet, these norms are commonly violated. Specifically:

  1. 93 percent of people regularly witness someone committing an EDI while driving a car
  2. 67 percent witness EDIs at the dinner table
  3. 52 percent witness EDIs during a customer service interaction
  4. 35 percent witness EDIs while at church
  5. 25 percent witness EDIs while in school

So what do we do when confronted with such blatant EDIs? According to the survey, most of us do nothing. Specifically, 1 in 3 people admit to coping with EDIs by simply ignoring them. Their reasons for not speaking up include fear of offending the culprit, realizing the EDI would be over soon, or acknowledging that the offender was a complete stranger.

However, what happens when repeat offenders are your spouse, child, best friend, or coworker? Even with close relationships, people still struggle to speak up and confront an EDI. According to the survey, nearly 2 out of 3 people have no idea how to effectively reduce the impact of others’ inappropriate use of technology.

Grenny says victims of EDIs who say nothing give their silent approval of insensitive and bad behavior.

“Technology allows us to quickly and effectively communicate with a large network of friends and acquaintances we would not have access to otherwise,” says Grenny. “However, these benefits should not trump social norms of respect, courtesy and politeness—especially with those we care about. It’s time we learned to speak up and confront electronic displays of insensitivity so that civility and technology can peacefully coexist.”

Grenny asked survey respondents who have found ways to effectively confront EDIs to share their best strategies for speaking up. Best practices included:

  1. Setting expectations: Talk about and display rules for cell phone use during meetings.
  2. Asking politely: Politely ask others to move to an appropriate area or lower their voice.
  3. Stopping and waiting: When interrupted, stop and wait for others to finish their call or text.
  4. Removing the temptation: Store cell phones in a basket outside the dining room until the meal is finished.
  5. Imposing consequences: Take away children’s cell phones if used inappropriately or gently touch your spouse’s hand as a reminder.
  6. Modeling good behavior: Start your interaction by stating your intentions to put your phone away and enjoy quality time with the other person.

In addition to these ideas, Grenny offers the following tips and scripts for effectively confronting an EDI offender in a way that restores civility without damaging common courtesy:

  1. Take the high road. Some EDIs are urgent or necessary so assume the best of other’s intentions. Empathetically say something like, “That sounds important. I can come back later if you need to respond to that call or text.”
  2. Spell it out. Specificity leads to results. Rather than making vague requests, set specific boundaries. Say: “We need your full attention in this meeting, so please turn off your cell phone.”
  3. Illuminate the impact. Describe the consequences of an EDI rather than blast your judgments about other’s moral compass. Say: “Your screen light is disturbing my experience of the performance. Would you please turn it off? Thank you.”
  4. Take heart. Don’t measure your influence by whether or not people immediately comply. Your intervention registers as disapproval and helps in the slow establishing of new norms.
  5. Let it go. If you’ve employed every tactic and the offender fails to comply, let it go. Unless the situation will continue for an extended period of time or your safety is at risk, you’re better off just moving on.

Note to Editor: Grenny is available for interview. Copies of his book, Crucial Conversations, full survey results and hi-res infographics are also available.

About VitalSmarts: An innovator in corporate training and leadership development, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.

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