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All About You: Sharpening your social skills in the smartphone age

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

How many times a day do you check your smartphone? If you’re like most people who own one, the answer is “often.” Several studies and research projects have been conducted on the subject over the past decade. Although the results may vary, one thing they all show is that most of us check our phones several times a day.

I don’t need to conduct a study to know that’s true. During my travels, I see hundreds of people, both in my audiences and when I’m out and about (including safety and health professionals), and it’s obvious we’ve become addicted to these amazing devices. I know I have a close relationship with mine.

Before giving a talk, I enjoy walking around and interacting with members of the audience. But that’s getting harder to do, because as soon as most people sit down, they whip out their phone. (Many already are looking at their phone while they walk in!) I feel like I’m interrupting a person if I say, “Hello,” and he or she has to look up at me to reply.

Excessive screen time can hinder our social lives. That’s what many researchers have concluded, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation.” Turkle said our habitual use of smartphones causes us to “lose our ability to have deeper, more spontaneous conversations with others, changing the nature of our social interactions in alarming ways.”

For several years I’ve been attending my favorite convention: the annual National Safety Council Congress & Expo. This year in Indianapolis, as always, I had an exhilarating experience. But this time I took special notice of how much my fellow safety and health professionals were on their phones – not to judge, but to help me be aware of my own phone use. One thing I’ve changed because of my observations is that whenever someone sits down next to me in a public area, I put down my phone.

Four times during this year’s event, someone I didn’t know sat down next to me in a lobby area. Right away, I put down my phone hoping to start a conversation. Twice it made a difference and I was able to start a casual relationship with a colleague. The other two times the person stayed on the phone, so we couldn’t interact.

We all know mobile phones can be a dangerous distraction while driving and walking, but we often don’t realize how much they can harm our enjoyment of the natural world and our chances to build or deepen relationships through physical interactions. Being with someone in person is far different than Facebook comments or texting. My daughter and I text each other often, but it’s still important that I interact with her face-to-face.

Take eye contact, for example. There’s a special value to looking into someone’s eyes, which philosophers and other wise humans have realized for millennia. Eyes have been called the “window to the soul.” Recently, I saw this humorous meme: “The only way I’m making eye contact with you is if you text me a picture of your eyes.” It’s funny, but it also shows what’s happening to our in-person communications.

Like other skills, the less we use our interpersonal social skills, the more they’ll weaken. For some professions, that’s no big deal, but for us safety and health professionals, who have to encourage, discipline and train, it’s vital that we keep them sharpened. So the question I asked earlier, “How many times a day do you check your smartphone?” is important because the answer may prompt you to change your smartphone use habits, and thus improve your social skills.

Smartphones aren’t going away soon, but neither is our need to make face-to-face connections. That’s why I’m going to be mindful of how my phone use is affecting my interpersonal interactions. So, if you ever sit next to me and I’m checking my smartphone, rest assured: I’ll put it down as soon as I can, look in your eyes and say, “Hi.”

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit


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