Pretending to use cellphones to avoid social contact is an emerging strategy in US society, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Of the 83 percent of US adults who have cellphones, 13 percent said they pretend to use them to avoid talking to people, it reported.
That number more than doubled, to 30 percent, among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29.
On social networks such as Twitter, conversation and jokes swirled around the topic when the study was released last week.
“Works great on reporters,” said George Merritt, a reporter turned public-relations man.
“Now I know why my coworkers are always on fone [sic] when I visit,” posted Eric Anderson, co-founder of the Denver, Colorado, advertising and communications company SE2.
Many said they did not just pretend to use their phones, they actually did use them to create “social force fields” in a variety of situations, from fending off aggressive sales people to sidestepping small talk in elevators.
They advised that games such as Grave Defense, Cut the Rope and Centipede worked just as well as fake texting.
Some bemoaned this social strategy as rude and lazy, another sign of the demise of a civil society.
Others see it as just another evolution of modern life.
“It’s an easy out,” publicist Wendy Aiello said while on her cellphone and chauffeuring her daughters around town. “We are so bombarded with communications — verbal, electronic — coming at us all day long that sometimes you just want a break.”
Particularly on airplanes.
“When you’re waiting to take off and the person next to you starts chitchatting, you pull out the phone and start texting. I do it all the time,” Aiello said
In the sweep of social history, avoiding unwanted conversations by doing things is not new, such as pretending to read a newspaper on a bus or in an elevator.
“Or digging through purses or suddenly discovering a spot on your pants,” said Michele Jackson, a communications professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The rules of politeness and social interaction change with each generation. Interpretations can also be dead wrong: What seems rude might actually be considerate.
“I’ve heard men say that when they are in an elevator and a woman walks in and it’s just the two of them, they’ll pull out their cellphones because they don’t want to seem threatening,” Jackson said.
Fake texting or firing up an app on the 16th Street Mall to avoid the gauntlet of people seeking donations or signatures is a valid style of indirect communication, she said, common shorthand for saying: “I don’t want to talk right now.”
There is a potential downside.
“It’s good for us as a society to be able to talk with each other about difficult or uncomfortable things,” Jackson said.
However, if people have developed that skill, then faux phoning can’t hurt.
“Maybe I’m just having a horrible day and I don’t want to engage in chitchat because I’m not in a place where I should be talking to people,” Jackson said. “Then it’s a choice.”