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Google, Unitasking, and Shabbat

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

For the last year or so, I have been working out at “Orange Theory” at Tatum and Shea, though there are Orange Theory franchises all over.  I like the 1-hour interval concept, and I love not having to think about my exercise routine.  Walk in, one hour later, walk out- done for the day.  Sometimes I run into congregants there, I’ve crossed paths with Rabbi Rony Keller, and even our own senior rabbi, Mari Chernow, is a fan.

You come in, get on a treadmill, and start walking or jogging, warming up for the cardio section. The thing I DON’T like is when the instructor says, “Turn off your machine and give me your full attention while I tell you what we are going to do today.”  What?  Like I can’t listen and walk/run at the same time?  Why don’t they understand my exceptional talent at multi-tasking?  I am SO good at multi-tasking that it is a challenge to do just one thing.

How does this translate into life outside the gym? Well, without a show of hands, how many of you have looked at your cellphones at least once during this service?  It’s okay- a 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 80% of cell phone users had used their cell phones during the last social gathering they attended.[1]  82% of them felt that using their phones in social situations hurt the conversation.

Check out this Dilbert cartoon from today’s paper- Dilbert is walking with a young woman who says, looking at her phone, “I’d better check this.” She continues, “It’s just what I thought.”  Dilbert inquires, “What did you think?”  Her reply, “I thought I would enjoy my phone more than talking to you.”  And this alarming statistic, also from the USA Today- 81% of people would rather travel with their mobile device than a loved one!

In a NY Times article entitled, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.,” Sherry Turkle reported on what some refer to as “the rule of three.”  If there are 5-6 people at a dinner, you have to check that at least 3 people have their heads up, that is, they are connected to the conversation, before you give yourself permission to look at your phone.  Yet, even while presumably connected to the conversation, people unconsciously keep the topics light, in order to make it easier to disconnect.

Studies show that even if you are not looking at your phone, “the mere presence of a phone on the table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted.  They don’t feel as invested in each other.  Even a silent phone disconnects us.”[2]

This lack of ability to connect has led to a measureable decrease in empathy. In several instances, the Torah uses the beautiful phrase, “shma b’kol,” literally, to hear IN someone’s voice.  That is, to listen beyond the words to sense what they are feeling.  This requires a whole host of skills, including appropriate body language, that are becoming a lost art.

Things like: looking the other person in the eye, leaning forward to indicate interest, mirroring the other person’s posture and avoiding crossed arms and legs, smiling, nodding.  We are losing the art of conversation.

Turkle suggests that part of reclaiming conversation involves reclaiming solitude. She writes that, “Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself.  Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time.  Think of unitasking as the next big thing.  In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.”[3]

Shabbat is the perfect opportunity to put down our phones and enjoy the lost art of leisurely conversation with friends and loved ones, and with ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi was once approached by a woman who asked him to counsel her son regarding the virtues of not eating sugar.  “Come back in a week,” he responded.  A week later, the curious mother returned, and inquired why the sage had asked her to wait a week.  “First I needed to give up sugar,” Gandhi replied.  It’s always easier to ask someone else to do it.  We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, yet judge others harshly.  USA Today reported that 17% of those surveyed say that they are on their smartphones too much, yet 56% state that OTHERS are on THEIR smartphones too much![4]

I can’t ask you to give up your cell phones for the entirety of Shabbat. I have not been able to do so myself.  Yet, I would encourage you to somehow make your Shabbat cell phone practice holy.  Perhaps banish the phone from your Shabbat dinner table?  Perhaps leave it in another room and check it at only predetermined intervals?  Or perhaps you will really succeed at disconnecting while you focus on the sacred aspects of living?

In any event, we can all benefit by Turkle’s advice to stop Googling and start talking. I want to challenge you tonight, over dinner or when you get home, to put away the smartphone and unitask for 1 hour.  And I WILL try not to be impatient when my Orange Theory instructor tells me to turn the treadmill completely off and focus on him or her.

[1] Turkle, Sherry, “Stop Googling.  Let’s Talk.,” NY Times, Sept. 27,  2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report of 1,004 U.S. adults

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