A cloaking device is a technology that makes your spaceship invisible to others. It’s a must-have for any modern sci-fi hero. But not even the Klingons or the Romulans had a two-way cloaking device. Many of us do—it’s our phone. When we feel that little “ZZZT!!” of a notification and pick it up, our sentient self becomes instantly invisible. Fascinatingly, the effect is two-way. The human world disappears to us at these moments. We can’t see anyone. We can’t hear anyone. There’s nothing but the phone when the connection’s engaged.
When engrossed with our devices and social media, we lose control of our time and attention and are less present at work and in meetings (and everywhere else). We embody something called “absent presence,” a concept generally originated by social psychologist and Swarthmore emeritus professor Kenneth Gergen. Absent presence is what happens when you’re physically in the room but not “in” the room. It affects our relationships and can have an impact on our reputation, because our moment-to-moment attentiveness is an untracked professional commodity. When it’s withdrawn, especially without explanation, others notice. Colleagues may think we’re rude, “spacey,” or socially immature—none of which serves our goals.
I experienced absent presence in a meeting with clients from a national cosmetics company. I asked how many stores they had, how many regional managers, and then, right in the middle of my sentence, the senior manager took out his phone and disappeared. He drifted into the screen and stopped responding.
I figured he’d gotten sucked into email, so I continued, but privately I felt a little ignored. After what seemed like a full two minutes of my awkwardly continuing without his eye contact, he looked up and said, “Three hundred fifty. Three hundred fifty regional managers.” Turns out he’d never really left, but because I had no idea what he was doing, his behavior was misunderstood. There was an impact to our connection and the flow of our discussion, all due to a few cloaked moments. When absent presence occurs in a meeting (or anywhere), people see us disappear into the void with no idea what we’re doing. . . or when we’ll be back.
In these situations, and with any digital device, the marvelous technique called Phone Narration works wonders. Phone Narration is the action of describing out loud what you are doing when using any screen-based device. It’s handy for keeping the human-to-human link when the digital ice-cream truck drives by. If you’re in a conversation or meeting and need to dive into your device, narrate your action to your colleagues. Let them know where you’ve gone and when you’ll be back. This graceful habit can be as simple as saying “I just need to respond to my boss” or “Let me look up that regional manager stat.” Any time you’re with others, it’s a wonderful habit to loosely narrate your screen-based actions.
As an aside, home is a really important place to narrate. With loved ones, when we grab our phone, we can say, “I’m going to check the directions to get us to the lake,” before pulling up maps. Or maybe, “I’m writing back to Grandma about brunch,” before disappearing. Your children, friends, and partners will be spared the separation anxiety that a plugged-in loved one can create. The technique also has a compelling secondary benefit. It forces us to state aloud exactly why we’ve reached for our digital darling. Often, we attempt to narrate and awkwardly realize we’ve picked up the phone for no reason at all.
There are a lot of things the people around us crave: our support, our thoughts, our talents, and our energy. But the one they want the most is our presence, an asset that’s easy to remove but also easy to instantly return with the simple tool of Phone Narration.