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.  

Books mentioned in this post:

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54 comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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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