Beneficial Contagion

Recently a new friend, Debbie, came into my life. And more recently, I got to meet her sister Cathy. All three of us being middle-aged women, we are “birds of a feather” in many ways. But there is one thing that sets them apart from most people I know, me included: They have impeccable cellphone manners. By which I mean that, if we are hanging out together socially, they do not have their phones out, and they are not constantly checking their phones. What a concept, right? In the old days before smartphones became a human appendage, this restraint would simply have been referred to as, “Well, duh. Common-sense good manners!”

Now, cellphone manners (as in put that thing away! and don’t check it while hanging out with other people) is something I’ve been working on, but I have a long way to go. I still glance at it when I’m supposed to be giving my exclusive attention to the people who are right in front of me. And this is easy to rationalize and get away with, because most of the other people I know do it too! With some of my friends, we are literally multi-tasking the whole time we are hanging out! I end up missing fragments, or even whole chunks, of conversation.

But guess who never does this? My friends Debbie and Cathy! And so, guess who didn’t do it the other night when she was hanging out with Debbie and Cathy? Me! And yes, it sometimes felt weird to not allow myself to “take hits” off that electronic crack-pipe during the evening. But the fact that it felt that weird only increases my resolve.

I use my smartphone mainly for work. And, it is my main tool for work. For writing, research, marketing, activism. And that’s great! But when I allow it to spill over into the personal space, it changes from a work-tool into an electronic crack-pipe! I’m ready to get beyond that for real.

Lots of us are working on this. And I wish us all success in being more deliberate with these tiny computers that for many of us have become such an appendage that we feel naked without it.

Now, the reason I’m bringing up this topic today is to illustrate the power of behavioral contagion. When I’m around most of my friends, it’s all too easy to let myself get away with the cellphone thing. But with Debbie and Cathy, it was easy to hold myself to my intentions to leave the phone alone, because that’s what they were doing.

How many behaviors can we help make contagious, just by being stalwart models of those behaviors? Always turning out the lights; always carrying our own reusable cup, spoon, cloth napkin so we don’t have to use disposables. Never accepting rides that are out of someone’s way. De-normalizing airplane travel.

Being insistent and even a bit of a hard-ass with our beneficial habits can be a good thing, if it inspires and rubs off on other people. What behaviors would you like to make contagious in the world? What are some ways you can help make that happen?

There is much to be gained right now from popularizing habits of restraint.

A fellow environmentalist friend just commented on her page, “I’ve noticed how much more seasonable the weather’s been! It’s like it used to be 20-30 years ago. I can’t help but wonder if the Earth is responding favorably to the temporary shutdown of factories and the less car/airplane travel.”

This is great news to hear that lots of people in various places are seeing more traditionally seasonable weather. (I had noticed the cooler breezy weather myself; some nights I have almost needed long sleeves.)

This possible evidence of a return to older weather patterns makes me all the more want to limit my car travel and air travel, and find positive ways to encourage other people to do the same.

Other things we can do include reducing our food footprint by eating local and more plant-based; minimize consumption of electricity to the bare necessities; minimize purchases of new goods. These are all big categories; it all helps!

And – not everyone everywhere is experiencing good weather. There are severe droughts; extreme heat; high winds in places. We have to keep doing our part to put the brakes on human activity’s contribution to extreme weather; disruption of healthy weather patterns.

So let’s hold ourselves to certain behaviors and do all we can to set an example that other people feel intrinsically motivated to follow.