Why Boredom is Important—Smart Phones Negative Affect on Cultural Intelligence

From the Lecture Series: Customs of the World—Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are

By David Livermore, Ph.D., Cultural Intelligence Center

Why is it that ideas so often come to us while we do mundane tasks? It’s because moments of boredom free up our minds to think creatively. Now, our addiction to cellphones appear to be interrupting these important moments of potential creativity, and negatively affecting our cultural intelligence.

Group of multicultural friends using smartphone outdoors
Smartphones are an insurance policy against ever being bored. (Image: By View Apart/Shutterstock)

Why is it that ideas so often come to us while we do mundane tasks? It’s because moments of boredom free up our minds to think creatively. Regular bouts of boredom play a powerful role in building cultural intelligence (CQ) and connection.

Who has time to be bored these days? More and more, people avoid the experience of boredom. Boring commercials during your favorite show? Fast forward through them. Pass the time waiting in line by scrolling through your social media feed, or sit through a dry religious service or class by surfing the web and texting.

This is a transcript from the video series Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Smartphones have become an insurance policy against ever being bored. Granted, not everyone across the world has a smartphone. You can catch the occasional glimpse of elderly people in certain communities who sit outside doing “nothing.” But the reality is, most people reach for their phones whenever there’s a minute to spare. But boredom serves an important purpose for our minds during those spare minutes.

Boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation. Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman conducted a study where a group of participants was asked to come up with creative ideas for how to use a pair of plastic cups. Before the brainstorming session, one group of participants was asked to copy numbers from a phone book while a control group was not given the boring task. The group who slogged through the phone book assignment came up with more creative ways to use the plastic cups than the second group.

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What our brains want is new input—fresh, stimulating, and social. But smartphones spare us the hard work to acquire that new input and thereby lessen our creative insights.

Creativity and cultural intelligence are directly linked as well. Accomplishing the same task with a group of individuals who have a different set of cultural values requires a creative, culturally intelligent approach. To get to this point, we have to have an understanding of our internal lives and selves.

Team Meeting Ideas Concept
Accomplishing the same task with a group of individuals who have a different set of cultural values requires a creative, culturally intelligent approach (Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Sense of Self

Without boredom, we’re less likely to think about our inner lives. The starting point of cultural intelligence is awareness of one’s background, implicit biases, and cultural identity. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost social scientists studying the impact of technology, describes her observation from doing extensive research on how adolescents and young adults relate to their smartphones. Most of the students she interviewed see their phones as an extension of themselves. They describe a sense of panic when their phone is dying and they don’t have a way to charge it. In her book, Reclaiming ConversationTurkle writes,

I see how happy these students are [with their phones]. They like moving in and out of talk, text, and images; they like the continual feed. And they like always having someplace else to go. They say that their greatest fear is boredom. If for a moment students don’t find enough stimulation in the room, they go to the chat. If they don’t find the images compelling, they look for new ones.” (p. 10)

This trend is not only occurring with the younger generation. The average U.S. adult checks their phone every 6.5 minutes. There’s little need to pay attention to what’s going on within you when the world is at your fingertips.

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Perspective Taking

Boredom increases the capacity for empathy and perspective-taking. Perspective-taking is the capability to step outside oneself and imagine the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another. It goes beyond the platonic admonitions of cultural sensitivity programs that teach “respect for everyone.” It requires stepping into another’s shoes and realizing they may not want to be treated the same way you do. Sitting on a bus in a new place and people-watching offers all kinds of insights you might miss when your head is buried in your phone.

There’s mounting research that reports a 40 percent drop in empathy among college students in the past 20 years, as measured by standard psychological tests. Social scientists suggest this drop in empathy correlates with the spike in online, mediated communication by both students and the parents who raised them. Many kids are growing up in homes where parents don’t get through dinner without stopping to read and respond to text messages.

It’s tough to enter the shoes of another person when you’re phubbing—the skill of maintaining eye contact while texting. It’s difficult to understand your colleague’s point in a conversation when you’re simultaneously emailing while “listening” to them. It’s difficult to fully engage with an unfamiliar culture when you’re still fully immersed in the world of email and social media updates from home. Boredom allows us to look around and observe details and nuances we miss when multi-tasking as we engage with others. This leads to one more critical issue.

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The “Wait, What?” of Face-to-Face Conversations

Turkle’s study found that among teens and 20-somethings, the most commonly heard phrase at dinner with friends is “Wait, what?” This is happening as much among 30 and 40-somethings as it is among teenagers. Conversations become more fragmented because everyone is in and out of the conversation, missing a beat because they’re available to those who aren’t physically present.

The beauty of smartphones is the way they allow us to retain connection and relationships with people who are far away from us. But the effect our phones have during our in-person conversations might a problem. Studies show the mere presence of a phone on a table—even turned off—changes how people talk. If two people are speaking and there’s a phone sitting on the table, each feels less connected to the other.

Being constantly available to everyone else means being only partially available to the people in your presence. Cultural intelligence is best developed face-to-face, one conversation at a time.

You’re in Charge, not Your Phone

Rest easy. Launching a campaign to ditch smartphones is not the answer. But it’s time to seriously consider the ubiquitous ways phones are changing our lives, relationships, and ways of engaging with one another.

The ability to text a college-age daughter from across the country can make you feel closer to her, or contact an aging parent from anywhere in the world, is a treasured gift. To develop cultural intelligence, we need to get serious by taking charge of our phones and putting them down to engage in real, face-to-face conversations, force ourselves to sit on a bus with nothing to do, and know when to fully unplug.

Shark Tank’s real estate guru Barbara Corcoran said in an interview:

“When I get home at night, I focus 100 percent on my family. There’s dinner, the usual homework, bedtime routines….but at night I don’t check emails or answer the phone. I plug the phone into the charger at the front door, and the next morning I grab it as I walk out the door. I realized a while back that the constant flow of emailing and texting was my personal enemy and I declared war.”

Common Questions About Smart Phones and Cultural Intelligence

Q: How do smart phones affect social interactions?

Smart phones negatively affect relationships because people are often distracted when they’re with their loved ones. Furthermore, smart phones indirectly impact relationships because they cause a deterioration in communication skills.

Q: Do cell phones affect social skills?

Cell phones affect social skills in that people no longer feel compelled to have face-to-face interactions with others, thus not developing the necessary skills to strike up meetings with new people or resolve conflicts.

Q: Are cell phones changing us socially?

Young people are much more likely to have extended conversations via text message than older adults, and they are also more likely to start or even end a relationship via text.

Q: How do smart phones affect emotional intelligence?

When people are constantly on their phones, they become disengaged with the world around them and with themselves. This leads to a lack of self-awareness and compassion.

This article was updated on September 3, 2019

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