Not On My Watch

Once, in the middle of an intense job interview, I ignored repeated buzzes coming from my smartwatch. I figured, nothing is so important that it can’t wait another 30 minutes. I didn’t want to be rude.

When I got out of the meeting, I discovered that I had been getting texts and calls had been from my residential alarm company, telling me the fire alarm in my house was going off. When the alarm people couldn’t reach me (the first buzzes), they called my mother, who then called me (more buzzes), wondering what to do. Meanwhile, the fire department descended on my house, and climbed in through a window to do what was needed.

It was a false alarm, thank goodness.

But since that day, no matter what’s happening, unless I’m on live TV, I tend to check my wrist when my smartwatch buzzes. I have a child in school, a house with an alarm system, and aging parents. If something goes wrong in my life, I want to know.

I have become what I expressly want to not be: rude and easily distracted.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

The funny thing is, I never check my watch in the presence of others to check the time. It’s been ingrained in me since I was a kid (the great-grandson of a watchmaker, no less), that doing so is the height of coarseness. I was told that in bygone days, formal dress for a man specifically forbade a wristwatch, because simply wearing a timepiece said that you thought something else could have priority over the people you were meeting at the important event you got dressed up for. That was not the message a man wanted to convey.

I also learned that if I wanted to know the time while I was with other people, the thing to do was to glance at someone else’s wristwatch, not my own. This is how I learned to read a clock at any angle.

These behaviors don’t apply today. People carry timepieces (phones) everywhere and to everything. They wear their fitness bands to opening night at The Met. And then there are the people wear watches that don’t display the time unless they are raised to their owner’s vantage; otherwise they’re black slabs of glass. So you can’t peep the time the way you used to. And you can’t see your personal alerts on someone else’s watch, anyway.

Modern times

If we are going to have modern watches in our modern world, we need a new etiquette of watch-glancing.

The real solution is to have watches that are themselves aware of etiquette: Ones that only alert us to messages that truly deserve our immediate attention, which depends on situation. Only life-and-death alerts would come through when you’re in a job interview, but more alerts could buzz you when you’re riding the bus.

Such a watch doesn’t yet exist as far as I know. In the meantime, perhaps we can program our smartwatches to never buzz when someone shares something with us on Facebook (I mean, come on), but always alerts us when a spouse calls three times, signaling an emergency.

The easy answer is to not wear a watch or connected fitness band, or to wear one and ignore it 100% of the time when with company. But that’s no solution. These products are complicated personal assistants, and using one requires more thought and foresight than just strapping one on your wrist and ignoring it. Or becoming its slave.

My rule is this: Every time I get an alert from my watch that I find disruptive, I go into settings, and adjust or disable it from bothering me again. But I’ve been doing this for more than two years and I still get annoying alerts. I’m still rude. Until the smartwatch and app makers learn how to program social awareness beyond “don’t wake me up between midnight and 6am” into their products, though, it’s the best I can do to bring some civility to the use of these coarse devices.

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