I ran into an acquaintance last week at the dentist. A fitness instructor at a gym I used to attend, we’d had significant conversations about our shared health and wellness passions.

Several years have passed since I’d seen her, but we immediately recognized each other in the waiting room. We exchanged greetings and caught up briefly on where I’d gone and where she was teaching now.

Throughout the “conversation” she kept looking down at her cell phone, scrolling and looking back up. Sadly, it didn’t seem all that strange to me. A few years ago I might have been offended. But I guess like the proverbial frog in the kettle, I’ve grown accustomed to it. 

After I finished my business with the receptionist, I turned back to the waiting area. She was just a few feet away, sitting by the door. I walked to the door and bid farewell: “Hey___ it was good to see you…”

But, caught up in the digital world, she had totally blocked me out. She didn’t hear me or see me. She’d barely acknowledged my existence during our conversation, what made me think she’d hear my farewell greeting?

I didn’t take it personally. But as I walked to my car a flood of emotions and thoughts rose within me about how digital devices are altering human engagements. And concern about future generation’s capacity for empathy, vulnerability and authenticity.

Among other discoveries, psychologist Sherry Turkle’s research indicates that over-reliance on digital connection is diminishing our capacity for face-to-face engagement. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age, she advocates for carving out “sacred” device free zones and embracing “unitasking”.

Digital Free at Lean-In Women's Retreat

Digital Free at Lean-In Women’s Retreat

Being more interested in our phones than the people in our presence is not good for the future of humanity. If we can’t invest time to be present with the real flesh and blood neighbors standing in line, sitting in a waiting room or at the dinner table, then how will we ever love our enemies?

It made me grateful for the work I do. I help people develop empathy with themselves and others. I sit with individuals and groups without cell phones or laptops. We have real engagements that sometimes get complicated and messy. Sometimes there are tears, sometimes voices get loud. That’s how real conversations with real people work. And only real face-to-face conversations help us develop empathy.

May the change begin with me!