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Tacit Phone Time

September 16, 2023

To illustrate this phenomenon, a scene:


Four smartphone-wielding friends meet for lunch at a café. Phone #2 lands on the table. The others’ phones remain holstered.

Minutes pass before Phone #1 pulses through Do Not Disturb mode in a purse. Its owner retrieves it. When it’s not her turn to speak, her eyes flit away to verify her thumbs’ clandestine efforts. She hopes this all goes unnoticed.

Everyone notices.

Permission implicitly granted, Phone #2’s owner thumbs through their home screen’s recent deluge and makes no effort to hide their addiction.

Phone #1’s owner fails to dispatch of her urgent matter. “Sorry,” she says, “I need a second to handle this.”

This reminds Phone #4’s owner that he forgot to hit send on that half-written, somewhat-timely text. He unpockets his phone and says nothing. (It will also only need a second.)

Phone #2’s owner continues to scroll.

Now sitting amongst a distracted trio, Phone #3’s owner takes a moment to glance at her own notifications. “Oh, that’s disappointing,” she either thinks or says. (She is unsure.)

Four friends now sit silently with their devices in their hands. Alone together, they pause to tend to the digital world’s demands.

An undeterminable amount of time passes. Phone #1’s owner returns her phone to her purse. “Sorry, had to deal with something.” she says to no one in particular.

Phone #4’s owner re-pockets his device. “No worries. As I were saying…”

The owners of Phone #2 and Phone #3 return from cyberspace.

No one acknowledges what just happened.

In nearly every social setting where wireless services are available, I’ve seen a version of this scene play out. I suspect you (given that you’re the type of person who would be reading a post like this) have too.

I call it Tacit Phone Time — or, simply, TPT.

tacit phone time - 4 friends on their phones

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is there a formal definition?

Formalities demand fancy formatting. Witness:

Tacit Phone Time  noun  —  circa 2014
an unacknowledged, unannounced, unplanned pause taken during an active conversation in which all participants temporarily redirect their focus onto their personal electronic devices instead of each other. Abbreviations: TPT, T.P.T.

If not all people within a group participate in TPT, it is still TPT if no one in the subgroup in acknowledged or actively engaged with the full group’s conversation. This is, of course, because this splinter group is a group unto itself.

2. Should I care about this?


I posit that TPT is so prevalent because smartphones are considered an appendage, albeit digital, to one’s personhood. It’d be odd to call someone out for scratching a physical itch; why wouldn’t that courtesy extend to a digital one?

Hence, the “tacit” in TPT… it’s an unspoken, implicitly-understood social mōs. Almost everyone I know (myself included) has accidentally initiated TPT.

This works similarly to yawning: when one person yawns, others tend to follow suit.

3. Why do you care?

Our focus seems so brittle these days, I do worry about this effect in the aggregate.

Years ago, an entrepreneur approached me about co-founding a business to help people have better relationships with their phones. “It’s getting to us,” he insisted. “The constant alerts, messages, notifications. You can’t turn it off. How do we make our phones work for us rather than the other way around?”

I hadn’t really thought about it. But, after comparing my behaviors and attention span before and after BlackBerry (n.b., this dates me), I knew he was right. I spent the following weeks learning about how our minds have accommodated our new, omni-connected digital companions.

Since then, companies have invested considerable dollars in building and marketing features in attempt to make these addictive little information boxes safer for human consumption. These efforts will only go so far as the return of our collective attention competes with technology companies’ revenues, and so it’s up to each one of us to make sure we have healthy relationships with our personal electronic devices.

Social pressure helps, as does a fun call-out to technology’s siren songs. “TPT!” I say. We all laugh. We all become aware, and behavior tends to change.

Epilogue to the aforementioned co-founding opportunity

I ultimately declined the opportunity as I didn’t think we could build a viable solution around BlackBerryOS, iOS, or Android without any of their buy-in. (Neither of us wanted to work for a FAANG, either.) Building a competing OS or forking Android without also launching our own hardware seemed to be a bridge too far for prospective investors, and asking customers to install a custom OS on their existing phones (voiding warrantees on expensive hardware) wouldn’t fly with the target demographic. If we did manage to succeed, it’d be trivial (and far superior) for those companies to bake it into their core feature set. (Which they did.)

One company took the custom hardware / forked-Android path. They’re called Light Phone and once they hit my radar I invested immediately.

4. How does one stop TPT from happening?

In the words of G.I. Joe: “…knowing is half the battle”.

In reading this page, you are now aware of TPT’s existence and can be the change you wish to see in the world.

For my part, if I witness the beginning of a TPT chain reaction, I usually let it happen to see how long it takes everyone to return to the conversation. If I can resist the urge to reach for my phone and refuse to disengage from the conversation’s center of gravity, I can usually truncate TPT time if not prevent it all together.

When I do participate in TPT, either willingly or absentmindedly, I’ve generally made it habit to introduce TPT as a concept when we’ve all returned to the conversation.

People (generally) think it’s funny.

Then they tend to notice it everywhere, too, because that guy was right: it is getting to us.

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