Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Updated with a response from Philip Hensher: I'll look at my mobile phone as much as I want to, thanks very much!

I read this article a couple of days ago:

"Looking at your mobile? You’re cutting off a world of creativity – and flirtation " - (Philip Henscher)

An excerpt:

"It’s fair to say that, now that pretty well everyone owns a mobile phone, your engagement with the world can be judged by where your phone is while you’re eating dinner. The woman in the Mousehole restaurant had yielded to a heartfelt request, I would say, in placing it in her lap under the table. More usual will be those who place it on the table beside the plate; and now, there are those who eat with one hand, the other holding the iPhone 6, rapt, quite oblivious of the poor waiter trying to pour your water.
To me, it seems fairly staggeringly rude to behave like this when you’re in company, but nobody else seems to feel that way. The truth of the matter is that if present company were instantly removed, and replaced by the people who are currently receiving messages, the phones wouldn’t be put away. The messaging would probably continue, to another set of people. It isn’t about showing that you’d prefer to be talking to people who aren’t in the room. It’s about your preferred distance from the human race. Those who text at the dinner table would generally like their relations with humanity to be conducted at electronic speed, remotely."

Oh shut up! I'm sick of people telling other people how much they should or shouldn't look at their mobile phone, or what it means about them as a person, or their relationships with other people, or their engagement with the wider world if they look at their phone "too much" or at the "wrong" time. The woman in the Mousehole restaurant that Philip refers to was a complete stranger. He has no idea why she was on her phone. So why does he think he has the right to judge her behaviour as rude?

These are just some of the things I use my own mobile phone for:
  • Phone calls and text messages
  • Reading news articles (I never buy a newspaper anymore - I get the news on my phone, and it's not limited to what one newspaper has selected for printing on it's pages on a given day).
  • Taking part in discussions in the Younger Breast Cancer Network UK forum.
  • Reading and responding to emails.
  • Scrolling through Twitter and Facebook.
  • Taking photos.
  • Shazaming.
  • Making notes and reminders of important things that pop in to my head that I don't want to forget.
As I look at all the apps on my phone I realise this list goes on and on. I'll leave the list there because you get the idea and I want to give some further insight in to what I might be doing when you see me staring at my phone instead of meeting "a frank, flirtatious gaze with another one." (You see, according to Philip, instead of looking stupid for having her phone out, that woman in the restaurant could have been the "best company in the room" by continually looking upwards and outwards with curiosity, waiting for a creepy - sorry - flirtatious "gaze" to acknowledge).

If I am out in a restaurant with you and I'm looking at my phone I might be:

Responding to alerts on Facebook. I'm a member of an online forum called the Younger Breast Cancer Network UK. There are over 1,000 members and it is a very active group. It was the information, advice and support of that group that got me through diagnosis, chemo, surgery and now radiotherapy. I've posted countless questions myself, and wonderful women across the UK who have been looking at their mobile phones wherever they happen to be have responded to me. As I've ticked different treatments off my list, I've learned and experienced enough that I can now answer other people's questions. I see it as a kind of Pay it Forward. Women who were diagnosed before me helped me, and now I want to do the same for women who have been diagnosed after me.
Sometimes I get an alert on my phone because someone has tagged me in a post - either to ask me a question personally, or draw my attention to a question or concern someone else has that they know I can help with. If I am out, and an alert pops up on my phone because someone is having a stress because they've found out they are going to have a skin sparing mastectomy with immediate LD flap and expander implant reconstruction plus full node clearance, is it rude for me to take a moment out to respond and send a link right away to the massive blog post I wrote all about my exact same (and not particularly common) surgery? If I am out and an alert pops up on my phone because someone is worried that their chemo vein has come up red and inflamed, is it rude for me to take a moment out and respond with a photo of my own, explaining it looks like a thing called superficial thrombophlebitis and is an inflammation and nothing to panic about? In my opinion - no. There are times that taking a moment out to respond to something like this can be a huge help, or save a person a lot of worry. I've been there myself. Going through cancer treatment can be terrifying, and the support of that group is invaluable. Right now, I am a part of it - whether I am sat in the hospital, or lying on my sofa, or out for a meal with you. I'm not thinking about it all the time - and as I move on with my life, I am lucky to be able to think about it less and less. But if an alert pops up because someone out there has a question I can answer, then I'm going to answer it!

Responding to emails. I mostly ignore emails when I'm out but sometimes there's a reason why I will check and reply. Here are two examples:
At Christmas, myself and some of my other YBCN friends who were sans-eyebrows as a result of chemo started creating our own festive "Christmas Chemobrows". Lots of the YBCN group joined in and Jojo created a community Buzzfeed article with lots of photos. It was a bit of fun - especially for women who were cooped up at home, ill from chemo, missing out on most of the festivities. The community article immediately got picked up by Buzzfeed, then Good Housekeeping, then the Telegraph, ITV news, Metro, Daily Mail, Good Morning America, ABC News America and so on and so on! I was getting emails from journalists, asking interview questions. This was while I was staying with my friend's family for Christmas. I didn't want to be rude, but I had to reply to the emails - it was wonderful publicity for our (volunteer-run) support group and the Christmas theme meant it was a very time-limited window of opportunity. (My friend's family understood entirely, and were excited by it too!)
Another example: recently I set up a blog called the Young Women's Breast Cancer Blog. I wanted to create a space for other young women with breast cancer to share writing if they don't have a blog of their own - maybe if they've never done it before, or if they are worried about anonymity etc. Sometimes I get an email come through - either a question, or a blog post submitted. I know that putting yourself and your writing out there can be nerve-wracking - so I try and reply right away, to at least acknowledge receipt and give an idea of when I will be able to get back to them properly, or upload their blog post.

Reading something on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes when you look on your phone for one reason (eg an alert) something else catches your eye. Don't get me wrong - a lot of everyone's Facebook and Twitter timelines are useless shite. But not everything is. Once when I was with friends I spotted something on Facebook. My friend Claire had added a blog post with the title "Goodbye my friends." Obviously I read it right away. It was Claire letting everyone know that her cancer had spread to her brain, and she had days left. I completely zoned out of the conversation that was going on around me (and got scolded for it - until I explained what I'd seen). I didn't mean to be rude. But I had spotted that post and there was no way I wasn't going to read it immediately.
People can be so haughty about this, but actually looking at Facebook or Twitter doesn't automatically mean you are wasting time or looking at something of no value. Another example I'll give is that recently, Ruby Tandoh (Great British Bake Off winner) came out on Twitter. As a result of scrolling through Twitter and seeing her tweet, other people had a boost of bravery, and came out themselves.

Sometimes, the support you need and the inspiration you need are online - and many of us access the online world through our phones. Many people are part of online communities - not because they are shunning the company around them, but because a particular circumstance (such as in my case, an illness) or a particular interest, brings them together with people who just aren't local.
A couple of weeks ago my online friend Kayla saw something I wrote about Angelina Jolie's surgery to remove her ovaries. Both myself and Kayla are making decisions about our own ovaries as we too are at high risk of ovarian cancer. Kayla saw my post - not sure whether it was via Twitter or Facebook - and she immediately messaged me. We then arranged a time to talk about it all on Facetime. Without a mobile phone this wouldn't have happened. Kayla lives in California, I live in Leicester.
I wonder if Philip ever considered that that woman in the restaurant might have been looking at her phone for a similar reason. Maybe she wasn't arsing about, or taking part in mindless gossip or similar, just because she didn't want to engage with the "real" world around her. Maybe she was responding to something (or somebody) important to her?

Also, a note on the claim that "looking upwards and outwards is the source of all art, thought and literature" and (about communicating with others on a mobile phone) "Of course, none of this is going to lead to art, or literature, or intelligent observation about our fellow human beings." I call bullshit on this too. In my opinion, it is what is within a person that is the source of their art, the source of their thought, the source of their literature. The outside world can prompt reflection and inspire some creativity - but so can thinking, so can reading, so can conversation (whether out loud, or in writing).

And you know what else? Your mobile phone can be a wonderful facilitator in the discovery of art. I'll leave you with two things.

First of all, a link to a song. My friend Laura sent me a message the other day. She was out with friends for the evening, and took a few minutes out to read my post "Burn the pages (start tempting fate)". She said a song came on as she was reading and it seemed to really fit, so she shazammed it. It was Lykke Li, "Dance, dance dance". I downloaded it myself, love it, and have, as a result found a new musical artist that I like. Thanks to mine and Laura's mobile phones.
And finally, this wonderful photo that appeared in my Facebook timeline. Taken by my friend Jojo who is an artist. I'm getting it turned in to a print to be framed in my house. I love it.

UPDATE! I got a response from the man himself!

Call me old fashioned, but I think if you are going to write judgemental opinion pieces in the national press, you should be prepared for people to disagree with you and if you choose to respond you should be grown up enough to do so with intelligent debate, rather than patronising comments like this.

Darn technology!
Oopsie - there appears to be a technical glitch of some sort on Philip's Twitter account and his tweets have disappeared. Luckily I took screen shots, so just for an accurate record (once a historian, always a historian!) here they are...

And I actually missed this bit but Jessica has sent me a copy of what came next. She responded with "So lovely of you to say so! What a sweetie." and was then accused of homophobia! That's left me a bit speechless.


  1. The problem with academics is they have been in the education system since they were 5 years old. Still petulant school children at heart, who have tantrum when people disgree with them.

    I use my phone for many of the same reasons as you but also to make sure my children and elderly parents are alright. Frankly though, it is no one elses business. Is reading the paper, a book or a letter at the table any different? The world has changed and you have to change with it and accept this is the new norm.

    Another thought, I wonder where Phillip was when he read your blog and commented using his phone, tablet or laptop.

  2. The woman in the restaurant was probably just trying to avoid his supercilious gaze!

  3. Oh my goodness - I can't count the number of times I've looked at my phone in public places JUST to avoid eye contact with creeps. But as Carl says, there are plenty of other reasons too - checking in with relatives, babysitters etc being another. Messaging another member of the group who is joining you later. Maybe the bidding for something you really want off ebay is coming to an end! Maybe you're getting supportive texts from someone who knows you have anxiety when out. Maybe you're on a first date and letting your friend know that so far the person you're with hasn't displayed concerning behaviour. Or maybe they have and you're texting your friend to arrange to meet you and make sure you get home safely. There's endless reasons. It doesn't really matter. I just think it's wrong to make blanket statements judging people for how and when and how much they use their phone. Let the people they are with decide that, it's no-one else's business. And the suggestions that "your engagement with the world can be judged by where your phone is while you’re eating dinner." and "Those who text at the dinner table would generally like their relations with humanity to be conducted at electronic speed, remotely." are ridiculous.