The 7 minute rule.

The 7 minute rule.

If you and I had had coffee sometime in the last month, or went for a walk together, or chatted on the phone, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from sharing a nugget from a certain book I read last month because I cannot stop talking about it.

That book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, and much like I did with Susan Cain’s Quiet, I put it off for many months because I thought it sounded boring, found it surprisingly riveting, and then couldn’t shut up about it for months (or years) to come.

I loved the book and took copious notes, but as so often happens with a good nonfiction book, I find myself repeatedly thinking about a few short snippets from the book: the kind of insights that—like mini-lightning bolts—began changing my behavior, immediately.

In my favorite of these little anecdotes, Turkle recounted an interview she’d done with a wise college junior about face-to-face conversation, smartphones, and empathy.

The girl confessed that when she was talking to others in person, she was too quick to pull out her cell phone when the conversation hit a lull. That’s no surprise: 82% of us admit to doing the same thing.

But unlike most of us, this college student believed she was actively sabotaging her relationships by turning to her phone when the conversation stalled.

She’d noticed something about the conversations she participated in every day: she couldn’t tell if a conversation would wind up being interesting or not until she was about 7 minutes in. And so she’d set a rule for herself: in any face-to-face conversation, she would wait 7 minutes before she gave up and took out her phone.

She didn’t always stick to her own rule, but she thought her conversations—and her relationships—would be better if she did.

As a society, we practically crave interruption. We’re easily distracted—and willingly so—by the shiny and new. But we don’t always realize what we’re giving up.

Just as solitude fuels creativity, and boredom ignites imagination, so it goes with conversation. It’s the quiet lulls in conversation that let us gather our thoughts, come up with new ideas, pivot in unexpected directions. Good conversations stumble. We hesitate; we backtrack. But a conversation’s awkward moments make the profound ones possible.

Boring isn’t bad. Boring often has a payoff if we can push through the discomfort to find out what’s on the other side. Not always, but often. And to find out whether it will this time, you have to put in your 7 minutes.

These days, getting your relationships right means getting right with your phone—but this won’t involve being on your phone. Instead, it has everything to do with learning how technology makes us vulnerable—and adjusting accordingly.

Do you have your own version of the 7 minute rule, or something like it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on conversation, technology, and blind spots in comments.  

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54 comments

  1. Amanda C says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this book! I purposely do not get my phone out when at the playground with my children so I hopefully appear more open to having a conversation with the other parents/adults there. As an introvert I find it hard enough to make and retain friends, and when everyone, everywhere you go, have their eyes glued to their phone I find another road block to human connection!

  2. Katia says:

    My personal rule is to leave my phone in my purse when I’m speaking with someone face-to-face. It might sound old-fashioned and strict, but I find it incredibly rude when people look at their phones during a conversation with someone, be it over dinner or coffee, at a party, or any other setting. In the event when I might be expecting an important phone call, I let my conversation partner know in advance about the reason why I might choose to keep my phone on the table. Otherwise, screen technology should play no role in a face-to-face conversation. If a conversation turns boring, I think it’s much more polite to excuse ourselves and walk away than to start looking at our phones.

    • Susan says:

      I agree with you 100%! Thanks for saying this! I’ve had a smartphone for only 2 years, and don’t find it as captivating as some others might, but giving someone only 7 minutes before cutting them off seems rude to me. What if the person you’re talking to is contemplating telling you something important, or deep, or what if they’re an introvert and it’s taking them some time to get to their point?! I firmly believe that the person you are with in person is more important than what might be happening in your Facebook feed! Of course there are exceptions, like if the person who at that moment is watching your kids is texting you, or you’re waiting for an urgent call. But giving someone only 7 minutes before you decide you need to check Twitter? Stephanie Tanner would say “How rude!”.

  3. Barbara Atkins says:

    I do not have a 7 minute rule but I do have a comment about boring. Allowing my sons to get bored was one of the cornerstones of my parenting. I think it is critical that we all learn to spend time with ourselves. We need quiet, non-entertaining moments to just “be”. That time is very difficult to find, more so now with so many electronic devices.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks for saying this! I totally agree that kids need to learn to “entertain themselves” (does that make me sound old?). I was an only child (hubby was too, and the old stereotypes about only children being spoiled did not apply to us!) and though I wished for siblings (I remember trying to get my dog to sit long enough to “play Monopoly” with me!), I really don’t remember ever being bored; and as an adult, I’ve ALWAYS had tons of things I’d love to do with any available time! The only time I can remember being bored is when I’ve been too sick to read or engage in other hobbies! I was a voracious reader (still am) and if my kids said they were bored (they’re all in their 30’s now), I would suggest things and if the “boredom” continued, I could easily find chores for them to do! Kids (and adults) need “down time” to be by themselves and find out what they love to do!!

      • Julia says:

        As another only child, I completely agree! My time with my friends was precious and as soon as it was over, I’d be on my own again having to entertain myself. It definitely instilled a want for conversation that’s lasted to my adult years. Instead of picking up my phone, I’ll ask how their day is going – but the key for any good conversation is a desire to learn more about the other person. Perhaps that virtue has been lost in the digital age when there’s always a better opinion to be found in the next twitter feed.

  4. Corby says:

    No electronics at any meal, even if I’m just eating by myself. It creates time for conversation even if that conversation is just with me.

    • Susan says:

      Yes, I agree. I’m just dumbfounded when I see families in restaurants who are ALL on their devices. And the sad thing is that the parents are often more absorbed with their phones than the kids are!!

  5. Jessica says:

    While I think taking out your phone almost anytime you’re speaking to someone is rude, the time-span of seven minutes is interesting.

    I wonder how long it takes someone to decide that something they’re reading is actually boring (as opposed to not worth their attention right then), especially given that most people are only said to read the title and then skim for a few seconds these days.

    Looking forward to this book!

  6. Ana says:

    Wait, people actually pull out their phones and start looking at them in the MIDDLE of a conversation with someone? That is so rude! If the conversation has run its course, you excuse yourself & say bye. I admit to pulling out my phone a lot (i.e. constantly) when I’m by myself or with my children (and they are doing their own thing…hopefully not when they are talking to me, though I’m sure its happened). I’m trying to keep it in my bag and allow my thoughts to wander—its REALLY hard! I almost lost my mind waiting for the bus one day when I did not let myself look at the phone. Longest 15 minutes of my life.
    I really like Amanda C’s comment above and never thought about it that way—I’ve worried about the effect on my current relationships but didn’t even consider the detriment to possible future relationships!

    • Haha I’ve tried the same experiment (forcing myself not to look at my phone while waiting by myself) and it’s ridiculously hard! Time seems to crawl by. I’m trying it more often though because I assume it’s good for me to remember how to entertain myself (and will set a good example when I eventually have kids!)

  7. I think one of the best things we can do for our kids is allow them to be bored–that’s a springboard for creativity and helps teach them patience as well. We try and put our phones away when talking to someone face to face, and at meals. It’s an area we’re striving to do better in all the time.

  8. liz n. says:

    Hmm…

    What ever happened to changing the subject to something more interesting when a conversation hits a lull? Or excusing yourself and moving on?

    • LoriM says:

      In the case of my husband, this does not always work. If he doesn’t feel like talking, nothing I bring up is going to convince him. If we’re in the car (where my phone habit is bad), I can’t even go to another room or find something else to do. But I could just sit and think or look out the window and be AVAILABLE for conversation – I need to do more of that.

      Very challenging post, thanks Anne!

  9. Cassie says:

    I tend to leave my phone out of reach unless I’m just with the baby. And now I’m actively trying to limit my time.

  10. Hope Clark says:

    I’m a firm believer in 100 percent attention to conversation when I have people in my reach. The phone stays in the purse and doesn’t come out. I even ignore phone calls…the texts can wait…the news isn’t that important. And when it comes to babies and children, they even more so need our complete attention. I have two grandsons I see at least weekly, and we talk with complete attention…they are 3 months and 2 1/2 years. That’s the only time the baby speaks back…which speaks volumes to me. We discuss nature, family, the world, the future. I treated the two year old the same and he knows that he can get my undivided attention. As a matter of fact, HE wants the phone more than I do, but I don’t let him see it unless we are discussing pictures of him or are talking about VINE pics of animals that he’s never seen in real life. But the phone ought to be minor in our lives. It saddens me to see phones in the hands of people at a dinner table, or even when they have each other to talk to. Those conversations could be so much more meaningful than texts, news, and emails on a phone. We need to get back to enjoying people. Thanks for this post.

  11. Anne McD says:

    We need to give those lulls in conversation a chance. I know when I am speaking with someone and we hit a silent spot, quite often I am summoning the courage to say something. If we are interrupted, what I have to say is never brought up.

  12. Allison says:

    Let me see if I have this right. The author (and maybe even YOU, Anne?) gives someone else a whopping SEVEN WHOLE MINUTES to make her case as to whether she is an interesting conversationalist or not? SEVEN MINUTES? So, if I am with you and you don’t like what I am talking about, I guess I will know pretty quickly, because you will be pulling your phone out of your purse, huh?

    • It’s ironic that you mention this book in the same breath as Susan Cain’s Quiet. As an introvert I can’t even imagine having/needing a 7-minute rule of this kind, and the idea that someone else might be using that rule on ME is kind of disturbing. Hopefully there are enough introverts out there who know that just because a person doesn’t charm you in 7 minutes doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to offer!

      • Oops, sorry, I meant this to be a comment on the post itself, not on Allison’s comment. (My computer’s always working 2 steps behind on your site, Anne, there’s so much going on here! 🙂

  13. Dana says:

    My rule is this: My phone stays in my purse when I am with other people. The only exception is if I get a call from someone, but then I have to retrieve from the side pocket of my purse. I do this only because I am caregiver for an elderly parent who is ill and I may be needed. ( My husband and I tag team being at home). That keeps it simple. Of course I am older and I guess old fashioned.We also do not answer our home phone during meals. ( yes we still have a land line).
    To me, it is rude when someone is talking to me and then starts fiddling with their phone. I take that as my cue to move on.

  14. Okay but how does she know it’s been 7 minutes if she isn’t looking at her phone xD
    All jokes aside, this makes perfect sense. Even just in normal conversation with family, it’s easy to just see that quiet moment and pull the phone out…maybe something interesting will be there, instead. Except, uh, your family is probably cool. And your friends…well, you chose your friends, you probably thought they were cool at one point, too – and why would they not be cool any more?! Oh, wait, it’s because the phone is easier.
    Personally, I don’t need constant conversation, I’m quite happy to entertain myself, phone or no phone. It’s not a matter of awkward silences that need to be avoided, it’s a matter of keeping occupied. #SorryNotSorry. If I’m not occupied, I’ll droll on about something boring (and I mean even boring my own standards, and I’m the one saying the things!) – and, by this advice, the person on the receiving end will be on their phone in no time anyway 😉

  15. I’m the same age as the girl you mentioned in the narrative, and I cannot agree more. To me, 7 minutes seems SO long to talk to someone. Doesn’t that sound awful?? I’m going to put forth this challenge to myself, because you make such a great pint. This is sticking with me. I think I need to start leaving my phone away in my room. Oftentimes, I cannot even carry a texting conversation for more than 7 messages, which is frightening.

  16. Gail says:

    I thought it was just because I am old, that I was shocked that anyone would reach for a phone during a conversation with anyone. So I am glad to see so many commenters agreeing with me.

  17. I hadn’t heard of this book before, but it’s going on my list now! I resisted getting a smartphone for a long time because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of checking it every time I was waiting or in an awkward conversation lull. As it turns out, I’m not very good about keeping my phone on me at all times anyway, so it hasn’t been too much of a problem. Still, I notice I’m worst at it when my husband is talking. (I see him all the time, so what he’s saying can’t be important, right?) I love the 7-minute rule and am going to try it out this week!

  18. This is something I honestly think about quite a bit. I know that it stings a little when someone whips out their phones when I’m trying to have a conversation because it makes me feel boring, and I know I do it too without really thinking about it. It’s difficult to be mindful about!

  19. Amy says:

    I found all of these comments to be fascinating. I am with all of the above people who *try* to always leave my phone out of sight when I’m in conversation, or in a social setting. It can be difficult, but since I crave deep conversation and it is rare to dive deep in less than seven minutes, I would never have those connecting conversations if I only gave people seven minutes before getting bored. I’ll tell you what – I’m probably one of the people who bores others in under seven minutes!

    • Katia says:

      I had to return to comment, having given this some additional thought. I read recently that our brains are changing due to the constant stimuli with which we are bombarded on a daily basis. When someone who is used to quickly shifting his or her attention from one image to another on the screen meets someone face-to-face, it might feel as though the conversation is going too slowly and the person might start to feel bored. In this case, the remedy would be for that person to learn to be okay with boredom, and to shift his or her perception of real-life conversations vs. text messages and their like. For someone who is addicted to screen technology, the seven-minute rule can be revolutionary. Change often starts with small steps.

      • Amy says:

        “For someone who is addicted to screens technology, the seven-minute rule can be revolutionary…” – That is an excellent point.

  20. Kelly says:

    I think it’s rude to pull out a phone during a conversation, regardless of whether it’s interesting or not. It’s very irritating to have dinner with a friend who keeps pulling out her phone to check it. I don’t check my phone in the middle of our conversation and dinner and I’d like my friends to give me the same respect. Don’t get me wrong, I love my smart phone and it’s done wonders for my social connections and productivity, but I think we should all put down our phones and connect with those around us.

  21. Lisa says:

    No electronics while we are eating, whether we are eating at home or eating out. When we are eating out, I allow my son to be on his phone until the food comes, and then all phones are put away. When I’m out with my husband or sisters or friends, I leave my phone in my purse and only take it out if the phone actually rings – I need to be available to my young son at all times (whether I take the time to have a conversation with him at that point, or I tell him I will call him back when I’m done with my meeting/lunch, etc.). I normally don’t take phone calls other than my son’s or husband’s during these times. I DO NOT check my phone every time I receive various notifications. I think it is rude to whomever I am with in person to take other phone calls while I am with them.

  22. Evelyn says:

    M phone stays off if I am with others UNLESS I am expecting an important call that is urgent. And if that is the case, I let those involved know.

  23. Rayni Peavy says:

    I always keep my phone in my purse when I’m getting together with someone. Do people really have such a short attention span these days that they have to look at their phone after 7 minutes when they are with another person? I find that quite rude.

  24. Courtney says:

    That book is going to the top of my must read list!

    I love the idea of the 7 minute rule. I use queue words to help me slow down or stop stressing. For example if I catch myself rushing I think or say “Molasses” and that helps me to remember to slow down. I think I may come up with a new queue word specifically for this, to remind me to give the conversation a chance before resorting to boredom stalling tactics. Perhaps “Meaningful”.

  25. Angela says:

    Most of my leaders in the children’s ministry are teens/late-teens…basically full-pledged millennials and they are on those phones whenever there’s a lull in our meetings. I found myself having to keep talking just to keep their attention. It is so frustrating, but the most annoying part? I switched to a smartphone just last year and realized I was on the brink of developing the exact same habit! I tell myself 2 words as a reminder to engage with the world, “Look up.” When I took a dance class, a classmate told me to look up/look ahead while I danced (I was subconsciously looking at the floor) and it made a huge difference in my performance. I found that it makes a huge difference in life as well.

  26. Jamie says:

    Yes! A good friend of mine who is also a licensed counselor shared her ‘five minute rule’ that she encourages couples to use. When one spouse starts sharing something, the other spouse chooses to be silent for FIVE WHOLE MINUTES and listen to what is being said. No questions, no comments, nothing. The talking spouse may not talk for those whole five minutes, but the silent spouse chooses to simply be quiet and allow space for the talking spouse to gather thoughts, share insights, etc. I’ve found this tip works WONDERS when we are driving in the car. My husband will often make a comment about a situation he had at the office that day or a conversation over lunch, and I’ll find myself glancing at the clock and thinking, “Okay, five minutes starts…now.” I’ll be quiet and it usually amazes me what else he shares during that short window of time. Now, five minutes doesn’t SEEM like a long time…until you’re the one having to be quiet! It’s true that I think I’m a good listener but usually I’m a much better “I-hope-they-stop-talking-soon-so-I-can-say-my-point”-er. 🙂

    • LoriM says:

      Great ideas here! I struggle with the opposite situation. I want to share and hear from my husband’s heart but he is extremely reserved, esp (I think) when he feels he’s being interrogated (oops!). But perhaps I need to give him more sitting/considering/ time after I ask a question, instead of just giving up and resorting to my phone.

  27. Aimee says:

    I love it when someone, like the girl in the book , notices a potential issue in their behavior and takes initiative to make it better. I don’t believe I have this issue but will pay more attention to my habits in conversation. These kind of habits are probably easiest to fall into with the people we see often, especially those we live with. Do I pick up my phone when I should be making better conversation with my husband? So often we settle into our mode of doing things way too permanently. I saw this book at the library and thought it looked boring. Maybe I’ll give it a try.

  28. melanie says:

    Geez, what a sign of the times that this is even a topic of conversation, much less written about in a book!
    I admit I have pulled the phone out in a lull. Heck, I admit I spend way too much time one my phone. This is something I’ve really been noticing lately. Even at home, I can’t do simple tasks without checking my phone every 10 minutes or so. I take it to the bathroom with me, I use it while waiting on noodles to cook, I look at it during commercials, I seem to think I can’t go to sleep at night without having wasted a good 30 minutes to an hour on social media. Amazing how distraction can creep in. What is the root of the problem?? I believe it’s that we(I) yearn for distraction.
    I have a feeling I’m not alone.

  29. Angie says:

    Count me as one who leaves her phone in her purse when others are around. I admit it: my feelings are hurt when I am talking to someone who is looking at their phone, so I have decided not to be the person with phone in hand. I turned off all notifications, so the only time my phone makes noise is for a call or text. If I am with a friend or otherwise busy, I ignore the texts but check to see who is calling before deciding whether to answer or ignore because 90% of my calls are from my husband or kids.
    Regarding kids and boredom, my middle son is the most likely to make that complaint. I tell him only boring people get bored; he is not amused. 😉 For some reason it is harder for him than for any of his five siblings to entertain himself when I have said no to screen time.

  30. CS says:

    An excellent book that touches on this topic is Unseduced and Unshaken by Rosalie de Rosset. This compelling book is about a variety of topics, one chapter is devoted to this topic specifically. Enjoy!

  31. Gwen says:

    I am thoroughly amazed that anyone needs a rule about time before looking at their phone. In my social circle phones are around but not looked at unless there’s an actual call (not often) or someone receives a text in which case it’s glanced at and only responded to if urgent. We consider face to face conversations more important. We value each other and don’t mind quieter times. That’s often when the topic will change or someone will share a difficult situation. I live in a large rural town in Australia but even when visiting family in a major city we still ignore our phones. Maybe this is just a reflection of our lack of interest in gossip, which is all much social media ‘stuff’ is.

  32. Holly says:

    Although I understand the principle behind the “7 minute rule),I agree with those who’ve said that they do not pull out their phone when spending time with other people. (of course an emergency would be the exception) And the idea that it’s okay to take out and use your phone if you are “bored” with the conversation after 7 minutes is a bit offensive. It implies that if we feel we aren’t being entertained enough we have the right to be rude to our companion by pulling out our phone. WE need to be active participants in the conversation, not just wait to be entertained.

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