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'Are You Phonely Tonight?': A New Year's Resolution

12/31/2012 03:46 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2013
  • Marshall P. Duke Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University

It was the biologist with the unlikely name of Ludwig von Bertalanffy who once noted that with every advance in technology, there came new problems. As he put it, "Aborigines in Australia don't worry about power failures in the summer." What he meant by this was that in cultures that had the capacity to cool themselves in summer through air conditioning -- a technological advance -- there emerged as well a theretofore unnecessary worry that the power might fail and they would be thrust back into the sweltering heat that they knew they had the ability to avoid. Obvious other examples are the concerns about nuclear devastation that come to us because we can generate useful power with nuclear reactors, the potential to perish in plane crashes that comes along with our being able to zip around the world in mere hours, the risk of being injured or killed in car accidents that comes with the easy mobility in our daily lives, and the horrific reality of being harmed with the very weapons that, when used properly, can win freedom and redirect history. To be sure, these grand-scale problems that arise with technological advances are sobering and have impact on broad national and cultural levels. There is little that can be said about them that is lighthearted, especially in view of recent events.

But there are many Bertalanffian burdens that occur on smaller scales that affect us more as individuals than as cultures and nations, and that generate far less real turmoil, but turmoil and troubling emotions nonetheless. It is often not the big stuff that causes us the most trouble in our everyday lives. It is the small stuff -- the hassles, the minor bothers. Hassles seem small when talked of or experienced individually. When they occur frequently and consistently, they begin to mount up. When they do, not only do they become sources of personal and interpersonal stress, they become the objects of puzzlement and even humor. This is the topic on which I write today.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a classic routine in which he describes what he terms the "telephone face off." This is the common experience in which we are talking with someone on the phone and another call clicks in. We are asked to wait while our interlocutor checks on whom the other call is from. Seinfeld describes the "agony" of waiting to see whether, upon returning, we will learn that we have "won" the face off and will be permitted to continue our conversation, or if we have "lost" and hear the dreaded words, "I'm gonna need to take this other call. I'll get back to you." Although surely not as devastating as the breaking up of a long-term relationship, nonetheless inherent in this loss of the "face off " is a real moment of social rejection.

There are other emotional experiences that also come to us, albeit in small, even temporary form, as a result of advances in technology, especially communications technology, especially, telephone calling, emailing, texting, tweeting and Facebook posting. Whereas the loss of the telephone face off brings to us a diminutive version of rejection, we, all of us I believe, have begun increasingly to experience a variation of the face off felt not only as diminutive rejection, but even more so in the form of feelings of isolation and experiences of unimportance, even loneliness. This mini emotion occurs in those moments when we are with someone -- talking with someone -- and that someone does not respond to us because he or she is either reading or writing a text or email or engaged with a "device" of some kind. I hope and believe that most readers will know what I am talking about. We ask a question, make a comment or the like, and we receive no reply or some reply that indicates clearly that we are not being heard. There is clearly something odd felt when that happens, but it is an emotion with no name, as yet. It is not the deep rejection of the break-up; it is not quite the active "I'll need to get back to you" of the telephone face off. It is more a sense of being "alone in a crowded room" or of not "being there." The closest existing name for this mini emotion is likely mild loneliness, the feeling that we want to be with people, to be talking with them, interacting with them, being responded to by them. Yet, when we reach out to connect with them, our efforts have little impact, and we are ignored.

A philologist, Mikhail Epstein, has written that there are many feelings and situations in our lives for which we do not have words. One of his most clear examples of a "missing word" is something to describe a feeling of happiness that is not long-lasting, but more of a blip that comes to us when something pleases us for a brief moment and then passes. We cannot accurately, he claims, describe ourselves as "happy" because that implies some longer lasting state of contentment. He offers the word "happicle" (a derivation from the idea that a particle is a small part of something larger). Similarly he proposes "madicle" to describe a passing feeling of anger that is often felt in relationships but are so fleeting as to be surely unworthy of mentioning or pursuing, lest the madicle evolve into a longer term and more troubling feeling of anger and resentment.

Following on Epstein, it seems that we do not have a word for the feeling of loneliness that we experience when we are with people who ignore us because they are texting or reading email, tweeting or otherwise engaged with a technological device. (It is very important to note that this feeling does not emerge when they are actually talking to someone on their phone while we are sitting awaiting their "return," because this situation allows us to make our own calls, or text, or email, or play Angry Birds, with implicit permission.) So what word can be generated to describe this mini-technogenic loneliness? I propose a word that, like madicle, describes a short-term experience but, due to its technological source, seems especially appropriate: phoneliness.

Phoneliness (ca. 2013)
Noun
The experience of isolation or insignificance arising when attempting to converse with a present human being who, due to interaction with an electronic communication device, does not respond in a socially-appropriate or expected manner.

See also other forms: Phonely (Adjective)

With the advent of the word phoneliness, many song lyrics can be immediately modernized. Roy Orbison could sing, "Only the phonely," and we would know what he meant. Elvis could seek a reply to his classic question, "Are you phonely tonight? Do you miss me tonight?" The Police would bemoan being, "So phonely." The Beatles would be looking at "all the phonely people."

Much of what I am writing about of course, is lighthearted and meant to be a little cultural "ribbing." However, there is also a serious reason behind my post. For many people, the Christmas and New Year holidays have been called "the hap-hap-happiest time of the year." For many, however, as we all know, they are among the loneliest. Because most of us are part of social groups and families that surround us, most of us are rarely faced with real, full-blown loneliness and isolation -- not during the holidays and not during the rest of the year. With technology, however, that has all changed. We, all of us, can now know what it is like to be ignored, to speak and not be listened to, to try and reach out to others and to receive little more than an empty "huh?" or mindless "yeah" in return. We, all of us, need to be careful about this. We need to be sure that we avoid the generation of phoneliness in those whom we love and surely care about more that the devices that we all-too-often allow to win the telephone face off. It never feels good to "lose" to a text or a tweet.

I hope that in the new year we can keep our priorities straight, that we can fight the "plague" of phoneliness, and that we can resolve always to let the living people next to us win out over the brightly-lit screens that beckon us like the sirens trying to lure Ulysses onto the rocks. Less histrionically, at least, we should resolve to look away from those screens -- even for a moment -- when we hear a voice in our proximity and to smile, even for a moment, a smile of recognition. This would replace "phoneliness" with a "happicle" and soften the pain of losing the "face off!"

(Dear reader: I hope you found this post interesting and useful. Reader? Reader...)

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