Want to Unplug? It’s Harder Than You Think.


Douglas realized something was wrong during his wedding anniversary dinner. He and his wife Elise were looking at the menus at the fancy gastropub in their small Chicago suburb when Elise’s phone beeped with a new text message. She read the message and immediately began texting back.

Douglas was irked by the interruption. He wondered if he should say anything. It was their wedding anniversary, after all. But he didn’t want to cause a fight.

So he settled for taking Elise’s hand: affection as distraction. She smiled and both settled into their romantic dinner.

But Elise’s phone beeped again. She checked it, and began texting back.

Douglas was officially irritated. “Honey,” he said, “you mind putting that away? It being our anniversary and we’re at this nice restaurant and all…”

Elise looked sheepish and tucked her phone away. “Sorry,” she apologized. Avoiding Douglas’s eyes, she looked down at their dinner. “But your phone is on the table, too.”

Douglas was guilty as charged. Embarrassed and wanting to avoid Elise’s eyes, he looked around. They were at the one of the nicest, most exclusive restaurants in town — and everyone was on their phone or tablet. Some people texted. A few actually talked on their phone. Many snapped pictures of their meals. But everyone — including a few waiters, and the host as well — was on their phone.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” Douglas thought.

Was the whole world so addicted to their devices that they couldn’t experience a real-life moment without an Instagram filter? Did people look each other in the eye anymore? Douglas felt something had to change, himself included.

Douglas remembered something Gandhi once famously said: “Be the change you want to see.”

He didn’t want to feel like the world was passing him by. He didn’t want to look up from his screen, only to realize time flew by — and where did it go? Right then and there, Douglas decided to unplug. He would call instead of e-mail or text. He would put his phone away whenever he could. He would ask for directions instead of looking up something on Google Maps. How hard could it be?

Much harder than he thinks, actually.

Douglas started with his job as an ad exec. Too many times he was irritated when a simple e-mail at work turned into an endless back-and-forth. It would be more efficient to have an actual conversation, either on the phone or at the office. And he was tired of the constant pinging of his computer and phone. Reducing the amount of electronic communication in favor of real-life, in-person communication would help him focus.

He saw his chance at work the next day. He got an e-mail from his co-worker Seth about a project they were working on together. He sent a short reply, only to get Seth’s response right away. Douglas knew immediately it would lead to a lengthy back-and-forth, so he got up from his desk and walked over to Seth’s desk on the other side of their floor.

Seth was sitting at his computer wearing headphones and browsing about ten different tabs on his Web browser. He startled when he saw Douglas, and hastily closed his browser. “What’s wrong?” Seth asked immediately, alarmed.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Douglas replied quickly. “I just wanted to talk over some ideas for the project.”

“That’s all?” Seth asked. “You mind just e-mailing them to me so I can finish something else?”

“I figured we’d save time with an actual conversation, instead of e-mailing back and forth right away like we usually do,” Douglas said.

“We do?” Seth asked in disbelief. “Usually I like to collect my thoughts before I reply.”

Douglas was annoyed. “But you reply back instantly, so maybe it doesn’t take you as much time as you think.”

Seth looked dumbfounded for a moment. “Maybe that’s true,” he said. “But at any rate, can you give me a few moments? I’m in the middle of something now.”

Douglas felt a little disheartened. This unplugging thing was not going the way he thought it would. “Sure,” he said halfheartedly. “Just swing by my desk when you’re ready to talk.”

Douglas kept mulling it over as he stopped by the coffee machine to refill his cup. Didn’t Seth understand that multitasking was actually inefficient? Douglas decided to bring it up when Seth stopped by his desk later.

But when Douglas got back to his desk, an e-mail was waiting for him. It was Seth’s response on why he wanted to e-mail instead of talk.

Douglas thought about walking back over to Seth’s desk, just to make a point. But he decided against it. E-mail was too much a part of their company’s culture and workflow, and too many people used their inbox as a defacto to-do list — it was impossible to expect people to work differently unless the entire company policy changed.

Sighing, Douglas opened up Seth’s e-mail and hit “Reply.” Unplugging at work would have to wait.

Douglas thought he’d have better luck with his parents. After all, they were a whole generation older, and less tech-savvy. They were the only people Douglas knew that still had their landline.

Still, even they were shifting toward virtual instead of real-life communication. They once called weekly to find out how Douglas was doing; they would even write letters now and then.

But they got an iPad a few years ago and also joined Facebook, which was how they kept in touch with family now. They liked commenting on pictures and posting photos, links and articles on their own.

As part of his unplugging project, though, Douglas now only checked Facebook every few days, and sometimes felt out of the loop when it came to family happenings. “Well, that’s nothing a phone call can’t cure,” he thought. So he picked up the phone and dialed his parents’ house.

Instead of rings, however, Douglas got a robotic message: “This number has been disconnected,” it said.

Confused, and just a bit alarmed, Douglas dialed his mom’s cell phone. “Hello, sweetie!” his mom chirped when she picked up. “We haven’t heard from you in ages! Are you busy at work, dear?”

“You guys disconnected your landline? Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Douglas chided.

“Oh, sweetie, no one called us on it anymore except telemarketers,” his mom said. “So we decided to just get rid of it and use our cell phones instead. Everyone we know either sends us a message on Facebook or texts.”

“You and dad text now?” Douglas asked in disbelief.

“Your sister showed us how,” said his mom. “It’s really neat! Now even the grandkids keep in touch with us. But we thought we’d hear from you more now that we’ve switched over. How have you and Elise been?”

Douglas felt a little sad, like it was truly the end of the analog age. “Well, I’m doing this thing where I’m ‘unplugging’ more,” he said. “Trying to rely less on screentime and more on real-life and real-time communication. Like this phone call. Isn’t it nice just to hear my voice?”

“Sure, dear,” his mom said pleasantly. “The only problem is we’ve got only so many minutes a month, and I think we’re going to hit our limit soon.”

“You guys switched over to cell phones and didn’t up your minutes?”

“Oh, honey, no one makes phone calls to us anymore except in emergencies,” his mom said, soothingly. “Text us instead. I can even use those little cartoons on my phone!”

Douglas was starting to feel like a cantankerous old man, or a small child needing soothing. “That’s besides the point. I was hoping to have a more authentic, real give-and-take with people. That’s why I’m doing this,” he said. “Too many people don’t really communicate and are really present with one another now, don’t you think?”

“Oh, sweetie, you can’t turn back the clock. Who uses clocks anymore, anyway?”

Douglas thought it was a little sad he was hearing this from an 74-year-old woman. “Well, I guess I’ll let you go, I don’t want to use up your minutes,” he said. Douglas felt oddly abandoned.

“Cheer up, dear,” his mom said. “Good luck with your unplugging. We’ll call you in two weeks when our minutes renew to find out how you’re doing!”

Douglas tried unplugging at work but failed. Even his parents didn’t quite work out in his experiment. But if there was anyone in the world who would support him, it would be Elise, his wife.

After all, she was there at the very beginning of his realization. He discussed his thoughts and feelings with her about it. (Okay, maybe it was more complaining and less “discussing.”) Surely she would understand and adapt to support him.

Douglas contemplated how increasingly digital their communication became over the years. When they met five years ago, Douglas relied on old-fashioned phone calls to court Elise. It was one of the things she said she liked about him. All the other guys were lazy when it came to calling, but Elise appreciated that Douglas took the time and energy to call to make dates and have conversations.

But they became lazy. Now, they mostly just texted one another throughout the day. It wasn’t even high-quality communication in Douglas’s eyes — their messages were a running commentary of their day, full of mundane details about annoying co-workers, work stress and random jokes.

It was nice on some level, and cut the boredom of a dragging workday. But sometimes he and Elise didn’t have much to say to one another when they got home for dinner, and as a result, they often ate in silence.

He didn’t want to become one of those couples, though. So he decided to text Elise less and instead “save up” his conversation when he actually saw her. Occasionally he’d call at lunch to touch base and say hello, but usually their conversations were short, since both were busy at their jobs. But they actually had something to say at dinner now, which Douglas found more satisfying.

Ellen, however, grew more distant and withdrawn. At first Douglas wrote this off to her work — she was leading a big project and was up for a promotion as well. But once those deadlines passed, she was still uncharacteristically quiet.

One night after dinner, he turned to her as they watched TV together in their living room. “Honey, is something bothering you?” he asked Elise. “You seem very removed lately. Are you mad at me?”

Elise hesitated for a moment. “Not mad,” she said.

“Okay,” Douglas said warily. “If you’re not mad, then you’re…?”

Elise looked down guiltily. “I know you’re on this big ‘less tech’ kick,” she said. “But I feel like we don’t connect so much now.”

“What are you talking about?” Douglas said incredulously. “I feel like we talk more than ever, literally. Like at dinner…we have plenty to talk about!”

Elise blushed a little. “But I miss hearing from you during the day, honey.”

“We talk at lunch,” Douglas said. “It’s so much better than texting, don’t you think?”

“Usually I sit with the girls and chat at lunch,” Elise explained. “But now I don’t anymore, because it’s rude to talk on the phone while you’re sitting with your friends. And besides…I liked the texting during the day.”

“You did?”

Elise looked down, and her voice grew soft and plaintive. “They were a nice break from work,” she said. “I thought it was cute, like passing notes in school. My work is stressful enough during the day, so it’s nice to have these little mini breaks during my day.”

Douglas was confused. On the one hand, it was touching how much his texts had meant to Elise, and how crucial they were for her happiness.

On the other hand, what was he supposed to do about his unplugging? He failed at work, and even with his own parents. He hoped his wife would work out, but alas — she too had adapted to the times, and now had gotten used to the “all text, all the time” style of keeping in touch.

Douglas sighed. “I understand, dear.”

This whole unplugging thing was harder than Douglas thought. He rethought his approach, and decided to unplug in ways that were entirely under his control. He stopped leaving his smartphone on his bedside table, so he wouldn’t check it as the first and last thing in his day. He tried to curtail browsing the Internet on the phone, or checking his e-mail in empty pockets of time. He decided to carry a book and read when he was waiting for something, instead of using his phone.

These measures were all easy — they relied only on him. But he couldn’t quite believe how hard it was to unplug when it came to connecting and communicating with other people.

Communication, he realized, was a two-way street, and both parties at either end needed to be in alignment in order for it feel satisfying and effective. He was willing to change, but the world around him wasn’t.

And so the next day, in the morning — as he was getting ready to read a string of e-mails from Seth — he pulled out his phone.

“The things you do for love,” he thought to himself. And then he texted Elise good morning.


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