April 26, 2018

The Nomophobes Prevail | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaThought I’d update you about the dinner I mentioned I was going to at the end of my last column. The occasion was a birthday dinner my friends were holding in a local restaurant for me. I love these folks and enjoy talking with them very much, so as a special birthday present I asked them to turn off their smartphones for the occasion so we could all talk easily.

Several of them looked at me disbelievingly. If I had asked them to surrender their wallets they would have been less gobsmacked.

They proceeded to spend most of the dinner pointing out to me they could “look that up” and get the answer to any point or question that arose if they could only use their smartphones. Many times someone reached for her or his device, only to be chided by others that they were not to use it.

I pointed out we were having an interesting discussion in which everyone participated without the phones on, and they all stared back at me stonily. More references to “well, I could look that up if I could use my phone” were made.

One of our party could not withstand the allure of his phone. He was seated two people away from me, and surreptitiously turned the phone on and was playing with it just beneath the table until he was ratted out by the friend on my left, who saw the telltale eerie light glowing and pointed out that the fellow was “cheating.”

So then I asked them if they resented my request that the phones be turned off. They all quickly (too quickly) replied, “no,” in tones of utter mendacity. Although several of them did begin listing all the useful things they did with their smartphones. (I agree completely that having a smartphone to serve you in myriad ways is an excellent thing, BUT when the smartphone takes over your every waking thought and attention that seems to me not such a good thing.)

Shortly after that the inevitable happened and two members of the group brought out the big guns: they got into a detailed—and heated—discussion over the misplacement of certain information in MARC record fields. A third was joining the fray when I could take it no more. I put my head on the table and capitulated, saying [in a necessarily muffled voice, my head still on the table, where I had started (gently) banging it]: “Everybody, turn on your phones!”

I have never seen such a rapid response. As a body, six people whipped out their smartphones like drowning souls grabbing a life preserver just before they went down for the last time. They were all immediately bathed in the ghostly reflected light of those phones. Conversation stopped completely as they texted, scanned through pictures, made phone calls, and did God knows what else. I couldn’t take it all in, my head still being banged (lightly) on the table.

Eventually their phone activity slowed and I picked my head up from the table (the birthday tiara they had bestowed on me in honor of the occasion was in danger of harm from the [really quite soft] banging of my head on the table). I looked around at my dear friends, and saw they were now happy. All signs of truculence and discontentedness were gone. I was sitting amid a group of six cheerful nomophobes texting, phoning, and surfing to their hearts’ content.

Now I wonder: do I have a problem, or do they? Are they nomophobes, or, in contradiction of the push cited in the last column to include nomophobia in the DSM-V, is this unrelenting attention to a smartphone the new norm? I will say this: my resolve not to get a smartphone was heightened by last night’s experience. I don’t trust myself enough to risk getting sucked into nomophobic behavior. And I really don’t want to become a total slave to a device; I want to be able to converse with others without constantly keeping my ears trained to catch a text. If I’m the aberrant one in the group, I’ll just keep my little old flip phone for now and cherish my techno-eccentricity.

But I will never again ask my dear friends to turn off their phones. I love them too much to test the bounds of friendship so severely.

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. I have a rule against bringing gadgets to important events (like your b-day party). You’d be amazed how many people find that surprising.

  2. Sounds to me like you’ve achieved a good balance between embracing technology and keeping it in perspective, Nate! Would that there were more like you.I’m hoping that eventually other folks will come around to your way of thinking.

    Meanwhile, thanks much for writing.
    Best wishes,

    • Cheryl, love your blog and also am still clinging to my flip phone. I just hate the idea that I must be immediately available to answer queries from those I know. It’s nice to have that slight remove to respond to emails at my leisure. However, it seems like we are definitely in the minority and we will soon need to capitulate to the pressure to be constantly on edge, waiting for the next text or email. Sorry to say, but we are becoming the “dinosaurs” of the information tsunami.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog. What you express about having the slight remove from e-mails is exactly my feeling; the times it would serve me are far outnumbered by the times it would be a pain in the neck. I think you’re right about our being in the minority, but I’m not sure about needing to capitulate soon to the pressure — maybe we can be the coelacanths of the library world, few and endangered, but still around. I was relieved to find that coelacanths are no longer even considered the “living fossils” they once were, according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coelacanth).
      Thanks much for writing,

  3. I have a sincere question related to this story. How do these people get their work done? If they are pinned to their phones all the time, this would certainly reduce their productivity and lead to poor service in dealing with the public. If they avoid being pinned to their phones at work, why can’t they do the same in a social situation?

    • Good questions, Bob. I recently came across an interesting study that may address your questions:
      “Focused, Aroused, but so Distractible: Temporal Perspectives on Multitasking and Communications,” by authors from the University of California at Irvine and Microsoft Research, in the CSCW ’15 Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, Pages 903-916, doi>10.1145/2675133.2675221, http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2675221, to be found in the ACM Digital Library. That study is based on workplace behaviors but I’m wondering if it may explain some of what I’ve been encountering among my buddies. I look forward to seeing more research on this topic.

      Thanks much for writing!

  4. I just knew there were others out there with flip phones! My shiny pink Razor has given me many years of quiet resolve and even the occasional text message. Thanks for the affirmation. Enjoy the day.

    • Andrea, I’m pretty sure there are still a lot of us out here with sturdy little flip phones. Mine does what I need it to do, and doesn’t make me feel welded to it. I actually left my phone at home today (forgot it) and I admit to feeling freer than I have in a long time; unfettered by it.
      Hope you enjoy your day, too! and thanks for writing.
      Best wishes,

  5. I love this discussion! The old flip phones or the ones where the antenna pulled out were some of the best made. While I have succumbed to the allure of a smartphone, my old one is on it’s third family member and still going strong.

    There is a book I recommend to those who are a little too attached to their devices. “Cell” by Stephen King is a very interesting read and illustrates one of the potential dangers of constant phone use.

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      I just looked and see that Widener’s copy of “Cell” by Stephen King is not checked out, so I’m on my way into the stacks — I want to read it even as a “non-nomophobe” — sounds good!
      Thanks for the recommendation, and for writing.
      Best wishes,

  6. I really love this blog, and feel both discouraged by the people who surround all of us – there’s no disputing that the behavior is addictive in nature – and encouraged by learning that some of us have flip phones for more reasons than just refusing to buy into more layers of connectivity. We are already tethered by feeling “on call” at random hours because everyone can reach us; it’s liberating to spend time away from search engines and inane social media postings. My flip phone also serves to amuse my middle school students, whose collective level of short-attention span / insistence that their cell phones are indispensable and should be allowed everywhere from classrooms to the dinner table terrifies me. I am basically living as Burgess Meredith’s two Twilight Zone characters – Henry Beemis and the Obsolete Man…the librarian convicted of obsolescence. Thank you for a wonderful read, though.

    • Wow, Kara, you hit so many resonant points in your note I’m not sure where to start in responding to them. Love the fact that your middle school students are amused by the flip phone, and really appreciate the references to the Burgess Meredith (such an underrated actor!) Twilight Zone characters. But you reminded me of something I should have thought about before in this discussion.

      Growing up I loved to read so much I had a book in my hands many hours of the day. But when I tried to sneak a book to the dinner table to read during the meal, my mother (an avid reader herself), made me put it away, because I needed to focus on participating fully in the dinner conversation, and reading at the table was impolite to the rest of the family. We were not particularly formal at meals, but were taught that paying attention to our dinner companions, rather than to a book, was plain good manners.

      Guess that lesson has stuck with me and I don’t see the difference between bringing a book or a smartphone to the table — both imply that you’re not focused on the conversation, in my world at least. So I thank you, and my mother (long passed on to another dinner table) thanks you, for reviving that memory about good manners!

      Best wishes,

    • So we both felt for Brigitta in The Sound of Music, tapped on the posterior with the book she carried as she drifted down to role call – and for Chelsea Clinton, lambasted in the press for reading at a diplomatic dinner…

    • Funny you should mention Brigitta — I found it very significant when I first saw the film that she was such a reader, since she was played by Angela Cartwright, of Make Room for Daddy fame. Vindication of a sort in the 60’s!

  7. Penelope Nottage says:

    I would like to know if your dinner companions were around your age or younger. I am 52 and it seems that most of the persons that I see on their cell phones every where they go are in their 30s or younger. I have a smart phone myself and have become more attached to it since I have begun to use instagram, twitter and whats app. However, I would never have it it out if I am eating out with others. Plus I refuse to use facebook on my smartphone or have a data plan. So if there is no wireless where I am I don’t loose it. I love your column by the way.

    • Good question, Penelope! One is in her 40’s; the rest of us are all over 50 (some into the 60s), which is why I figure it’s not an age issue, but a behavioral / etiquette issue.(or a question of addiction to the technology). All these folks do have data plans, BTW, which I’m just too frugal to spring for in addition to my broadband home net access.
      Hope the extra info helps to provide context. Thanks much for the nice comment about the column, and for writing, too.
      Best wishes,

  8. One experience does not make for a diagnosis, but it does make good filler for a Library Journal column.

  9. I was a bit surprised about your friends’ discomfort with being asked to keep their phones zipped during a birthday dinner party. That’s not something I’ve experienced with my friends (mostly mid-40s) but what did resonate strongly with me was the difference of opinion that just HAD to be resolved right then and there.

    I ruefully admit to being guilty of this myself, and am struggling to think of a time in recent memory when my friends and I wouldn’t have done the exact same thing. I feel like the main consequence of this access to instant answers/proof is a lessening of my own skill at agreeing to disagree. Before technology enabled us to get instant answers we had to work at being skillful persuaders, to be diplomatic and even to let things lie for a little while for the sake of the friendship. Now we can shut all that down in a second with a couple taps and a triumphant, “nope you’re wrong!” I wonder if we aren’t becoming more interested in being right than being happy?

    • I hadn’t thought of it that way before, Shawna, but now that you mention it, I’m wondering if getting that answer so quickly doesn’t shut down discussion prematurely, no matter who’s wrong or right. The whole idea of exploring a question or an idea with friends does seem to go by the wayside if somebody in the group simply “pronounces” on the subject, based on what they found via their phone…. I’ll keep this in mind for future dinners.
      Thanks for writing!
      Best wishes,

  10. I finally got a smartphone after my last flip phone died and the options to replace it were so limited. I did not succumb to its allure and am still able to go for hours without looking at it, have conversations with people who are in the same room as me, and even leave it at home sometimes. And I am still not shy about asking people to put their phones away. I tell people that interacting with the phone instead of the people they are with is rude and hurtful. It makes the people they are with feel unvalued and unimportant. It doesn’t always work but I’m still fighting the good fight.

    • Sarah, you have said it all beautifully here. Thank you for writing this, and for providing a model for sane and courteous smartphone use.
      Best wishes,

  11. to all early model cell phone users: does anyone else feel like captain kirk when they open up their clamshells?

    • Yes!!! I suspect that’s one of the reasons I hang on to mine, in hopes that one day Scotty will beam me up.
      Thanks for the insight, Dan.
      Best wishes,