Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘phone’

Dunbar’s Number and Your Cell Phone

Professor Robin Dunbar poses that the maximum number of individuals with whom a human can maintain social cohesion is 150. Hence, “Dunbar’s Number”. Essentially “social cohesion” means that you have some degree of awareness of who another person is beyond simply their name and their Twitter handle. Further research seems to show that we can follow 500 acquaintances (we know a bit more than just their name; for example, we might know to whom they are married), and we can match some 1500 faces to names. As I’ve written before we then cone down through various circles (friendly acquaintances, casual friends or “buddies”, close friends, and best friends), and there is a nearly constant movement in and out of all but the closest inner circles.

How has electronic communication altered this dynamic? It turns out that there is rather little change in the numbers involved. Weird, huh? You’d think that FB, Twitter, Snapchat, and Messenger would have increased the numbers but in fact Dunbar’s more scientific rationale–the size of the neocortex determines the number of contacts–holds true no matter what type of communication connects your network. Dunbar does have some thoughts on SM and its effect on relationships and they can be summed up thusly: remote connections maintained electronically crowd out the possibility of newer, closer friendships created locally and in real time.

My bet is that you can easily confirm this in your own groups as I did just the other day. A friendship 15 years in the making, one that was probably on the border between “buddies” and close friends, has been on the wane after a retirement and subsequent move south (and up), it’s gotta be 10 years ago now. A (very) brief interaction around a death in the family is the sum total of our engagement for a couple of years, yet I have managed to remain connected through occasional social media “engagement”. What remains of our friendship is my memories of times together, and perhaps warm feelings on both sides when those memories arise.

But Dunbar is right; mourning the friendship that was keeps that slot occupied and therefore unavailable for a more intimate, current, local friendship.

Key to all of this is the “how” of our interactions. Beth and I organized a spur-of-the-moment Happy Hour at a local bistro that turned into a raucous up too late bacchanalia with our inner circle. Cell phones were pocketed throughout (with the tacit agreement that we could text if our kids reached out) and we hugged each other, punched shoulders, and shared all manner of concoctions through the night. Yes, it all started with a group text, but that was simply the flint struck to light the campfire for the evening. We were together in the realest sense of the word.

How can we further combat this “crowding out” effect of modern electronic communication brought on by the availability afforded by our ubiquitous, irresistible smart phones? Easy. It’s in the name of the tool: phone. Short for telephone. Initially “cell phone” after the towers that were first erected to transfer…wait for it…telephone calls. VOICE! Voice, once taken for granted, has now become so exotic that I have been informed that I must first make an appointment to call someone on the phone. Indeed, the voice call is only slightly less rare (at least between friends) as a handwritten letter.

Therein lies the solution my friends. Your handheld computer is a telephone. It’s not even all that retro: Captain Kirk famously spoke into his communicator (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) in the future of Star Trek. Call your friends. If that seems a bit too anachronistic or archaic indulge in a video call. Hear them/see them between those occasions when you can shake hands or hug. More voice, fewer posts/texts/messages/snaps/tweets, especially for anyone in the “buddy” circle or closer.

Now, get off the internet. Go call a friend and make plans to get together for the Labor Day weekend.

Dial Tone

There are a couple of broad-brush themes I find myself drawn to, things I find myself visiting with some regularity. Communication is one of them, and this week the specific thing that came up several times was how you might choose to communicate with a particular person or group of people. There’s always a trigger for these ruminations, this time the jarring interruption of an examination in my office by a ring tone that my patient surely thought was quite clever and altogether appropriate for any and all occasions. Yeah. No. Especially not while sitting in the exam chair in front of a doc who pointedly does NOT carry his cell phone while on the job.

We all got to talking about what cell phones have become and how we use them. A bit later in the day a patient was lamenting the presumed need to carry a smartphone with all of the attendant capabilities and inferred responsibilities and demands. You know the drill: each text is mission critical and cannot be ignored. An answer must be on its way before the backlight on your phone dims. You no longer have the answer to any question literally at the tip of you fingers, you now have the obligation to GET that answer, right now, lest you end up with questions in a queue. Questions have rights, too, in the age of the smartphone.

It’s insidious and seemingly irresistible, even for a guy who hangs his cell phone on a peg in the office (like a gunslinger entering an old West saloon). The “gotta answer” text now more compelling than a phone call ever was before because you can answer that text so quickly, almost…ALMOST…without interrupting whatever you may be doing otherwise. Unlike a phone call, where you must break away both attention and voice in order to communicate with someone who is not right there with you. Texters are now to the point where you need to text and ask if it’s OK to call. I must admit that even though I am nothing short of terrible at the physical act of texting (my auto-correct is in therapy with self-esteem issues) I, too, have been seduced by the ease with which a thought/need can be sent off RIGHT NOW, saving me the angst that would occur if I somehow forgot to transmit that thought/need if I had to remember it for a later transmission. I found myself becoming annoyed that my Mom doesn’t text (or email, but that’s a whole ‘nuther thing) because if she did I would never, ever forget those mission critical things I was supposed to remember and report.

But then, of course, it hits me: some people are always worth the effort of a phone call, even if they DO text (or email). In the natural evolution of communication a phone call–a real, live, use your voice and your ears phone call–has become as significant a gesture as hand writing a letter once was. Some things you just have to say out loud, and some people you just have to call up and talk to. You don’t text your grandmother to tell her about your first big boy/girl job after college. Your grandmother is worth a call even if you’re just telling her you remembered to pick up orange juice. Your Mom and Dad, POSSLQ, doctor, the guy who’s fixing your toilet–if these people want or need a call, a call is what they should get. Some communication is nothing more or less than a transactional transfer of information, while other communication is much more personal. Truly effective communication occurs when both sides are in agreement about what type of communication is occurring. Every communication with my Mom, for example, is personal, and would be even if she had and used a Galaxy whatever. As a matter of fact, even a phone call with my Mom is a kind of compromise as far as she is concerned because I am not able to just drop by to catch her up on whatever it was that she tasked me with reporting. Indeed, face to face communicating trumps even the handwritten note for immediacy, engagement, commitment, and conspicuous effort.

I was able to communicate with my patient just how I felt about that phone going off in my exam room with one eyebrow tied behind my back.


I am the world’s second worst texter. I’m not sure who is the worst texter, but I’m pretty sure that there can’t be more than one person who is worse than I am. I’m not too concerned about that, though, nor am I all that interested in making much improvement. I just can’t stand the pressure.

Haven’t you noticed? Unlike a phone call where it’s totally OK to let it go to voicemail, there’s an expectation that a text is going to elicit an immediate response. Actually not so much of an expectation as a demand. Call it “textpectation”.

How do I handle the pressure of “textpectation”? Easy. I simply continue to aggressively suck at texting. I have effectively lowered expectations so far that any response at any time is considered something just short of a “visitation”.

YMMV, but if you’ve sent me a text, don’t take it personally.