How Smart Phones Lower CQ

davidlivermore | January 10th, 2013 10 Comments

Growing numbers of Study Abroad students spend most of their free time on Facebook and Skype, communicating with friends and family back home.

Business travelers often do the same thing. Evenings are spent catching up on email and communicating with family, co-workers, and friends rather than soaking up the local culture.

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together (highly recommended!) notes the same phenomenon at professional conferences. Conference attendees are tethered to their digital devices, concerned about finding the time and space in the schedule to be alone with their digital networks. People at conferences used to chat with others while waiting for a presentation to begin or getting a taxi. Now they spend that time doing email, supposedly making better use of “downtime”.

I love that I can see and hear my kids’ voices on Skype, even when I’m on the other side of the world. But I have a growing concern that our technological advances work against so much of what is core to cultural intelligence—being fully present, deep-focused consciousness, and becoming more aware of one’s identity and culture. The growing discussion and research about the impact of technology upon our lives has profound relevance for how we think about our cross-cultural effectiveness.

Leverage Liminal Space
International Travel has always been a powerful way to gain self-awareness and perspective on life back home. But if we bring our homes with us, how might we be missing out?

You’re probably familiar with the idea of liminal space—the anthropological term for disorienting periods which foster new points of view. But technology is making liminal space harder to come by.

International travel, cross-cultural encounters, and to some degree, even retreats and conferences use to be ideal environments for liminal space. But if our driving concern is staying connected to life back home, it’s much harder to experience the disorientation and transformation these opportunities used to offer.

In June, my 15-year-old daughter will be going on her first international trip by herself. I’m grateful that she’ll rarely be more than a text message or Skype call away. Yet I wonder how that might limit her experience compared to my first overseas sojourn—where in 6 weeks, I had one or two ham radio calls home and a few letters from family and friends. My social network was stripped away. It was hard, but it forced me to directly encounter my fellow travelers, our hosts, and the local Peruvian culture.

As painful as it’s going to be, my wife and I want to limit how much we hover over our daughter’s experience in Thailand. We want to give her the liminal space she needs to shape her identity and further develop her CQ.

Eliminate Multitasking
Many of us (myself included!) think we’re immune to the studies that debunk the gains of multitasking. But the research is mounting that when we multitask, the quality of everything we do is downgraded. It feels good to multitask because our brain rewards us with a multitasking “high”. But our actual productivity and effectiveness goes down.

Turkle reports that her MIT students whose laptops are open in class don’t do as well as those who take notes on paper. She’s convinced this is mostly a result of the additional distractions that seduce the laptop students (e.g. Facebook updates, ESPN scores, YouTube etc.).

A crucial part of behaving with cultural intelligence is engaging in a high-level of self-consciousness. This includes things like perspective taking—How would I feel if I were this person right now? How do they perceive me? How do they view this situation—And it’s a matter of being self-aware. This requires a lot of brainpower, something that gets reduced when we multitask. In fact, some studies such as this one reported in The Chicago Tribune show that we actually lower our IQ when we multi-task.

Create Boundaries
Technology is not the enemy. And cold turkey approaches are unrealistic. Most of us can’t cease from all email contact when we travel nor can we expect all Study Abroad students will forego Facebook for a full semester (though if you’ve tried this and succeeded, by all means share the results!).

But we can reclaim control over our technology, rather than merely being seduced by its pings. A few simple ways to begin, when you travel and when you’re home.

1. No Phones at Meals
When sharing a meal with loved ones, colleagues, friends, or even a vendor soliciting your business, turn off your phone off for an hour. It does wonders for conversation and connection.

2. Turn off “Push”.
The “ping” of email releases dopamine in the brain. Most of us can’t resist the urge to check our phone when we hear it. A simple way to eliminate the distraction is put yourself in charge of when you get email rather than the device being in control of your attention.

 3. Schedule times to do email.
We’ve all heard this before but it bears repeating. 1-2 times a day focused on email communication is suffice for most of us. It’s amazing how quickly I get through it when it’s the only thing I’m doing for an hour. It’s also amazing how quickly it consumes 4-5 hours of my day when I’m just randomly responding as emails come in. Plus, if you’re known as someone who always responds almost immediately to email, it backfires when you actually want to take a break. And if you put up a vacation/auto-response, take advantage of it and don’t check in!

4. Don’t check email during breaks etc.
When you’re traveling or attending a conference, if at all possible, don’t check email during a brief break. There are so many times I’ve regretted checking my email at lunch break, frustrated that I don’t have adequate time to deal with some of the urgent things that have come in. And it tempts me to send off a quick response I might regret later.

 5. Re-think what’s urgent.
But what about when there are truly urgent issues that have to be addressed? Surely there are crises that emerge. But most of what we deem a crisis, really isn’t and can be delayed for a few hours, or even days.

6. Use Commute Time to Reflect and Breathe
When traveling, (or even commuting to work daily), resist the temptation to use the commute time to read email, Twitter, and Facebook. Observe what’s going on around you. Reflect upon the day’s events. Breathe deeply. This can make the difference of whether a 15-minute train ride is calming and life-giving or life-sucking.

 7. Limit the Ping Pong Effect
The problem with catching up on on my email is it induces nearly as many responses that fill my inbox all over again. Think about how to make the email threads as few as possible. Suggest a time and place to meet. And if you need to communicate to a colleague down the hall, walk down and talk to them.

The bigger challenge is implementing these boundaries. But I hope you’ll resolve with me to gain a little more control over technology this year, which will in turn improve your CQ, the quality of your work, and best of all, your overall quality of life!

10 Responses to How Smart Phones Lower CQ

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  2. Excellent article! Trying to unplug at home (and concentrate on work while you’re at work) is a big challenge, even when you don’t own a mobile/smart phone.

    What makes it even harder is the ubiquitous and distracting presence (and subliminal messages) from electronic media and advertising, such as numerous TVs in restaurants, even in-your-face ads on the wall above urinals in men’s restrooms. They are rapidly becoming more intrusive and harder to get away from.

  3. Excellent article, I have to admit that I have been guilty of being glued to my various devices while traveling. I decided to take a few of my classes online while traveling to Guatemala the 2012 Fall semester and I spent most of my time online with my professors, collaborating with classmates, and doing assignments while staying in contact with family. What provided a link to the culture was living with the family and starting/running a summer camp. On the one hand, what an amazing opportunity to travel while studying, I was able to take classes, manage my blog, and find resources for my camp. On the other, I didn’t make the deep connections I usually make with fellow travelers. I did schedule excursions and stayed places where internet was not available, but it wasn’t always by choice.
    We are trying to accomplish more than ever before. Plenty of the pressure is external, but much of it is internal. We cannot examine the tools that are important to have in society without examining why society has made them important. I think many people are caught between a rock and a hard place (particularly professionals). The tools help manage it, but also feed the frenzy. Great suggestions. I never use my devices during meals (just rude), but will have to work on the others, lol.

  4. I find the observation of Turkle intersting, “Turkle reports that her MIT students whose laptops are open in class don’t do as well as those who take notes on paper.” As a college instructor I am wondering how do we convince students of this? Many seem to think they are better at multitasking than “older” generations, so it doesn’t apply to them.

    • Patricia, I would tell your students to watch “Digital Nation” ( About 11 minutes into this PBS special, researchers state their findings: that people who claim to be multitaskers with information actually are significantly slower when switching than when doing the same task consistently. Multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking:

      * They get distracted constantly
      * Their memory is very disorganized
      * They are worse at analytic reasoning
      * There is serious concern that they are becoming people who are unable to think well, and clearly

  5. Pingback: Do smart phones lower your CQ (cultural intelligence)? | International Studies at Belhaven

  6. As someone who business traveled before human surrendered to technology:

    Back in the 1980’s when I started business traveling and attending the conference/training circuit, there was a bonding time where it was consider an outcast to not get together the sessions and socialize during the breaks/lunches.

    The ones who needed to get back to their room to make an important long distance call were in the minority. There was a fun factor of meeting new people who were common enough with you to attend the same events. LONG TERM BUSINESS FRIENDSHIPS WERE BUILT DURING THESE SOCIALS.

    In recent years, trying to start small talk with someone who has potential for a long term relationship base on the attendee profile at conferences is almost impossible due to technology taking over our lives.

    Maybe Stanley Kubeck (2001: A Space Odyssey) was onto something?

  7. The great irony for me — is that I opened this blog post to read it almost a week ago. It stayed, open and unread as one of the 15-20 open tabs in one of my (multiple) internet browsers on my screen. When I got to the multi-tasking bit, which I’ve heard before on the radio (while driving and texting and sipping starbucks) I was filled with self-loathing and regret. These unread, perpetually open tabs are another instantiation of unclosed boundaries — the persistent creep of overly integrated worlds.

    I love the post, Dave, and I especially love the insight-inducing conversation between technology’s insistent pressure and the vague quiet of liminality. My favorite tip is the idea of turning off phones at dinner — because that brings the personal technology into direct conflict with the family or the friend (the immediate social context). When Van Gennep first popularized the notion of liminality — he talked about societies with dense formal systems where identity was carefully policed (through the making of boundaries) by the elders — and limin was a dangerous, sometimes carnivalesque but always transformative space where magical growth and development could occur.

    Since we’ve silenced most of our village elders these days — I’m imagining an egalitarian proposition that could precede each meaning: “Shall we turn off our phones together for this hour? And see if we can invent something unprecedented, unique and particularly transcendent?” I can’t really imagine such a proposition working so well at my home dinner table (which is why it’s just an existing rule already), and I know there will be some raised eyebrows the next time I try it with a friend or colleague, but it seems worth a try.

    And now, since this comment has made me aware of some cultural predilection that I have for egalitarian negotiation, I need to switch off my laptop, close the seven tabs in this browser and spend a little time gaining some self-awareness.

  8. Too funny, I’m reading Turkle’s book now after just finishing: Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton. Read Carr also!

    I have far more questions than answers. Do you notice how Friedman (The World is Flat), et al., regale 24/7 portable information access as the greatest thing since sliced bread. In the name of progress, effectiveness, and connectivity – technology adoption rarely is met with a great deal of consideration for the ethical, social, and personal implications. The so-what question in this case has many implications for identity; social identity, social norms, and social capital; communication; one’s sense of reality; literacy, learning, etc. I have more questions than answers. Your post though really speaks to that which I am spending a great deal of time thinking about!

  9. I have noticed new, younger missionaries having a hard time connecting to their new culture and their team members because they are so tied to their home culture through Skype and Facebook. They don’t see why they should disconnect, even for a while.