happyponyland.net / Keep your dirty phone out of my face

A couple of years ago, following a long period of intense stress, I had a lapse into electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or as those who are not criminally insane call it, phobia of the intangible. Over night, I started experiencing various unpleasant sensations and became afraid of all kinds of technology - I was uncomfortable passing under power lines and worried about my neighbors Wi-Fi signal leaking into my apartment. This was especially crippling as I live a very digital life. Most severe was that I could not use my cellphone.

At least I was clear-headed enough to realize I had to deal with this somehow. I had a friend help me do some A/B tests, where I would hold a cellphone and try to "sense" whether it was on or off - of course, it turned out to be just wild guesses on my part, scoring about 50/50. Also, the more I read about the perceived symptoms of others, the more I became convinced that these people are nuts; tinfoil hats are not just a figure of speech.

(One of the most bizarre theories I came across in this research was that carrying a phone in a lightning storm was potentially lethal, as a lightning strike could travel along the "invisible thread of electrons" from the phone to the base station. Except... that's not how cellphones work. That's not how any of this works!)

Note: I'm being pretty harsh here, but I'm not looking just to take a shit on people who are suffering from these problems. I'm convinced that they are genuinely not feeling well, but that the cause is psychological rather than physiological. There are also cases where there might actually be reason to suspect chemical poisoning. In my case it turned out to be some kind of mental block.

It's not that strange though, that I developed this particular hang-up (haha; get it? hang-up) about phones. I don't really like them; they have been a continuous source of stress for most of my life. Between my psychotic ex calling to make suicide threats and managers from work calling during off hours to talk about whatever it is that can't want until monday morning, I've had relatively few calls where friends spontaneously decided to check up on me and have a civil chat. When my phone rings, it means trouble.

I've never been comfortable making calls, as I don't know who will pick up in the other end (though everyone having personal cellphones these days has made it a bit more predictable). I have a hard time recognizing voices and following conversation without visual cues (I also don't like listening to radio or "podcasts"). I don't like receiving calls since there's the obligation to pick up within seconds, no matter how busy I might be or ill-prepared for that particular conversation. In more modern times there is also the whole "constant availability of social media" issue; I think there are some positive effects from it, but that in the long run it is also hurting both our attention span and self-esteem.

A couple years later, I had a situation at work. I had been working a lot on this phobia and had recovered somewhat, but I was still struggling to conceal how uncomfortable I was about the whole thing. A co-worker was in a call when he came up to me, shoved his phone in my face and told me "someone wants to talk to you". I found this outright rude, and not just because I'm nuts.

First of all; that I am at my desk doesn't mean I'm available for anyone, for any purpose; you might actually be interrupting something.

Second; I strongly prefer to know what a call is about beforehand. Engineering requires keeping track of a lot of information. If you need me to pull up sheet 253 of drawing 583951-8, you will get a much more informative answer if you give me a moment to prepare.

Third; when working in an office landscape, I should find a private room to avoid disturbing the other colleagues (and so should you).

Fourth; I don't want your dirty phone near my mouth. It's a hygienic disaster. 30% of your time using it you spend in the bathroom. I wipe my own phone thoroughly with wet towels every couple weeks and it's still smudgy and disgusting.

The proper etiquette here would have been to give the conversation partner my number, so I could take the call later with my own phone. Better yet, he could have given me their contact details, so I could prepare and make the call myself in my own time. Or they could just send me a damn email.

At my current job, I don't even have a work phone. Almost all communication is through Slack or various ticket handling systems, with the occasional standup meeting or video conference, and people just leave me alone most of the time, understanding that my unbroken concentration is actually worth paying for.

(As a sidenote, what is up with all these messenger apps? I have like 6 different ways, not counting regular texting, to get in touch with people, mostly with just one or two contacts on each who happen to prefer that particular service.)

I'm doing much better these days. I use my private phone daily, to communicate online or make calls (although for this, I use handsfree most of the time). I use Wi-Fi without worrying too much about it. I set limits on how available I really need to be and dream of a simpler life.