Q: I see students everywhere — on the bus, walking down the street, in coffee shops — staring at their phones non-stop. My neighbor’s son walked right past me the other day without acknowledging me, that’s how absorbed he was. I think it’s rude and dangerous to disengage from your surroundings like this. What can I say when I see someone paying more attention to a phone than to those around him?
— Name withheld, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: I hear you, but it would be hard to say anything if you can’t even get someone’s attention! A friend of mine in his 40s, irritated by this very same infraction by younger folks, posted on Facebook how he decided to handle it, writing, “Seeing those people buried in their phones on the sidewalk is one of my biggest pet peeves about walking around the city, so I decided to stop stepping out of the way and let them run into me instead, which happened one night.”
Assuming no guinea pigs (or humans) were injured in this experiment, that’s one way to get people to take their eyes off the phone and — with any luck — make it a teachable moment. Once you do that, what do you say? I like a firm “Excuuuse me!” Those words, along with the impromptu collision, should provoke a sincere “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.” And, I’d hope, an effort by the offender to pay more attention to his or her surroundings, which is important for two reasons.
First, let’s talk about basic safety. Not so long ago, a colleague of mine was walking to the subway in New York — with earbuds in place, fingers blithely tapping away — and oblivious to the person behind her. In seconds, both her phone and handbag were abruptly removed from her possession. I suppose she was lucky that was the extent of the crime, but the theft was not exactly small potatoes: Consumer Reports estimates that more than 3 million Americans had their smartphones stolen in 2013, double the number estimated for the year before.
There’s another, more prosaic reason. Paying attention to your surroundings is not only a way to protect yourself, but it’s also the only way to simply be present, i.e. to experience the street scene about you and to become a part of it. Not to go all Zen-like on you, but I am reminded of this powerful quote from philosopher Eckhart Tolle: “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus on your life.”
My friend who played bumper cars on the street told me, “This behavior reminds me of something that I miss most about living in the city, too — eye contact. Used to be that you couldn’t walk down the street without catching the eye of several strangers — and handsome strangers if you were lucky. That hardly happens anymore.” If that occurred more often, maybe I wouldn’t get so many questions from readers about how they hate dating apps.
As for your neighbor’s son, I think a hearty (and loud) greeting from you standing directly in front of him would have been in order: “John! What are you up to today?” Asking a question that requires an answer would, at the very least, force his eyes to leave the screen for a moment.