Are You Dull? A Smartphone Can Tell You

Jun 10, 09 | 8:39 AM   byMichael Wolff
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It would be impossible to explain what is actually going on in the meltdown of the New York State legislature—and no one would be interested anyway—except for the point about the BlackBerry. A rich guy, Tom Golisano, came to Albany to complain about taxes and, instead of listening attentively, the head of the Senate, to whom Golisano had made substantial contributions, played with his BlackBerry.

This detail comes from the New York Times, which, in another story, reports that in spite of the recession, sales of smartphones will increase this year by 25%. Smartphones, the Times says, are now a social necessity. If you don’t respond to an email immediately, you’re a slacker.

But the greater social point is what you do with a smartphone in someone else’s presence. Checking your phone is the official, and nearly acceptable, way to say you’re boring me.

The way the Times relates the incident involving Tom Golisano, you would think it is about the uncouthness of Malcolm A. Smith, the New York State Senate majority leader (who is no doubt uncouth). But, in fact, what Smith did is what everybody does. Golisano went on about taxes, no doubt at great length, in words and arguments that Smith, a levier of taxes, has heard an uncountable number of times before, and so Smith phoned him.

Helplessly. I know I’ve tried many times to stop, to keep my hands in my pocket when my mind wanders, and just have not been able to control myself. Any respite to boredom wins out. It is not, it suddenly occurs to me, that tobacco was so addictive, but rather the urge to have a cigarette just when you were getting bored was so powerful. At least checking your phone is much healthier.

Checking your phone is usually not such a social flashpoint as it was with Golisano and Smith because in most cases both parties have a phone. So you check your phone, and I check mine: We’ve merely bored each other—no need to take offense.

It’s not even, necessarily, terrible boredom. It’s just a yen for a little outside stimulation.

High school, these days, must be just that much more tolerable if you can check your phone during class.

But there's a lesson, too, that should be taken to heart by Golisano and by teachers everywhere. When someone is giving you the sign that you are boring, it probably means that you are boring. The bored party may have a certain social responsibility to look interested, but I would argue that the boring party has a much greater responsibility to be interesting. Before smartphones, there was no clear way for a person to necessarily know he’d lost the attention of his audience. But now we do.

In Hollywood, where everything depends on holding someone’s attention, it has long been the custom while pitching a project to carefully watch someone’s eyes; if they wandered you’d know you were losing your chance at wealth and immortality. Warren Beatty, it is said, when pitching his interminable and boring movie, Reds, saw just such a sign and immediately jumped up on a table and dropped his pants.

Take the hint. If someone’s phone comes out, try harder. Break into song.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at

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