I am usually not a generous survey person. A lot of kindness evaporates when a solicitor calls asking for “Mr. Ball-batch” when the Mrs. is clearly on the line. I change sidewalk lanes when I see those young people with clipboards. I know all the hidden website places to find the no thanks "x."
Yesterday was one of the exceptions. I got an email with a request for a listener survey on a podcast I’m quite fond of. Also the email sender’s name was Quinn, the same name as my first born, which should have nothing to do with it and yet it weirdly did. They both have two "n’s"! Quinn, the one in my email, promised the brief survey would take approximately 10 minutes.
I followed the link to the survey with optimism. I like this podcast and I want them to keep doing it. By about question 15 I started to fatigue. As fond as I am of the podcast, for something I only engage with about once a month I’d simply run out of things to say about it. Then came the question of “how busy I am” on a sliding scale which felt disingenuous to answer any other way but “not very to average” given that I already told them I had 10 minutes to spare. Then came the open ended question about how the podcast had caused me do something different in my life. I thought this maybe ambitious for a form. After all, I didn’t agree to the 10 minutes with the expectation of baring my soul and writing a narrative. When I tried to skip over it, I got the RED letters that I needed to complete the last question. I went back and answered “n/a.”
I made it several questions beyond the “n/a” but didn’t end up finishing the survey. (Note to survey makers: sometimes the survey completion status bar is not your friend. Note to Quinn: sorry, mate.) While a better survey person, a more loyal listener, or a person with less sensitivity about their busyness may have completed the survey, I don’t consider my abandoning the survey a character flaw. I do however think it’s interesting to understand how and when people decide, “I’m out!”
Our online selves leave conversations, which I've heard called ghosting, whenever the conversation gets hard or boring or someone’s Uncle Eddy adds something completely awkward. We leave long articles in search of the digest version or because someone posted one of those “Tasty” videos showing us everything we need to know about making Beer Mac ’n’ Cheese in 30 seconds. We get sucked into a reality TV show because for a few minutes it seems to be hitting on something genuine and then something gross turns up and we’re out.
We do have to filter things online because not every article or even “Upworthy” post merits our full attention, but the problem is when our online habits bleed into our real selves. When approximately 10 minutes of face to face conversation – without a digital interruption or other tabs open- feels like a really long time. When we prematurely say “I’m out!” when the conversation takes a wrong turn or before we’ve left any space for a deeper conversation to bloom.
I did an experiment with my middle son yesterday. I asked him on the ride home where it was just us if he wouldn’t mind putting his phone away for the whole ride. (It’s interesting how agreeable our kids are to doing this when we are willing to do the same.) In the first five minutes, we covered the lunch menu and our usual topics and then he added, “You know you are worse about your phone than I am” to which I could only say, “I know!” We then covered new conversational ground and when we finally got home some 20 minutes later, he said, “Wow! that was a long ride wasn’t it?” to which I said, “I know!”
Good conversation takes time and it takes work. It takes not giving up in the pauses or asking dumb questions to fill them. 12 years old especially do not like the dumb questions.
Later that night as I sat the boys down to a rushed dinner, I was multitasking at the desk. I was busy looking for hotels in Stockholm while my older son was trying to tell me about the recent news of the Czech Republic and their treatment of refugees. I kept on with the Stockholm search (the hotel options are many and beautiful!), but I did open another tab to BBC News to search on Czech Republic. By the time I left the hotels for the news, the conversation around the table had moved on to who had the Parmesan cheese.
Yeah. Missed it. The conversation. The irony of me being the one with the laptop open at dinner. It happens. All you can do is say “I know!” and try better next time.
Next time was later that night. I did the same experiment with my older son on a dark ride home when it was just us. (He too was happy to put his phone away for the car ride, but only after he texted his gf goodnight.) We did not talk about what he just texted or school or college (a favorite parent topic at the moment and a not-so-favorite topic of a high school senior.) Instead we talked about funny “only in Luxembourg” things that happened at his practice. I told him about the other Quinn and the survey and ABOUT the podcast I really like and how long 10 minutes is and he told me about “the rule of 8” he learned from his 7th grade math teacher to make me not feel so bad about aborting the survey and then we started to make up funny survey questions and we couldn’t stop laughing. We laughed all the way home and into the living room.
Phones down is no guarantee you will end up in a belly laugh, but doesn’t even the possibility of it make it a 10 minute exercise worth trying?