Unexpected Consequences of a Computer on Your Wrist.


Have you been in a conversation while someone checks their watch every few minutes?  Your new "smart watch" may turn you into that person.

Our lives are filled with giving and reading nonverbal cues from those around us. Everything we do communicates to others. While some communication is in sync with our intentions, often what others view is out of line with what is going on in our hearts and minds.

Some people such as Blake Eastman & Michael Allosso are incredibly insightful in understanding human communication and make a living guiding others in being more effective communicators.

Most of us live our lives unaware of what we are communicating to those around us. Likewise, when we look at technology, few of us consider the potential impact of new technology on our communication and relationships.

Whenever a new product or technology is announced, companies share their vision of how they think it will affect the lives of their customers and the world. Consider the video Apple released with the iPhone 5. The iPhone will be something that keeps you connected with the world around you. You’ll be face to face with those you love and this new device makes it all possible.

Unfortunately, the result is often something different…

I enjoy reading all the articles about the Apple Watch with people sharing opinions about what it will be like to have one on your wrist. I really appreciate our friends in the press putting so much energy into helping us think through how the device is going to affect our lives. I don’t believe we will really have an idea how our lives will be changed by Apple Watch until it is on our wrists. It will likely be years before we have the full picture. The same way our use of smart phones is completely different from 2007, it will take time for Apple to refine their products, developers to make the apps and creators to dream up all the things to do with this new device.


As we saw with the advent of smart phones, social and nonverbal cues which existed in the past have been amplified and changed by new technology. Before cell phones, someone constantly looking at their phone (or answering machine) would communicate a nonverbal message to the people around them. Most likely they were concerned about a loved one or expecting important news. As cellular telephones entered the market, the same situation could have happened but the nonverbal message was only slightly different. When text messaging became available, the technology also created a shift in nonverbal communication that goes along with looking at your phone. The same action which may have communicated concern for a loved one who might be calling in 1980, could be interpreted as people outside the room being more important than those you are with face to face. Today, with smart phones being only occasionally used as an actual telephone, a similar glance toward your phone could mean almost anything. It is possible that glance reflects concern for a loved one but it is also just as likely to be checking email, sports scores, social media or wondering if it is time to harvest crops in FarmVille.

I backed the Pebble E-Paper Watch on Kickstarter a few days after it launched. At the time, I thought it sounded cool and had some interesting features. At the time, I hadn’t thought extensively about how its basic features would change how I interacted with technology.

When my Pebble finally arrived (I had to wait for the red one!) and I started using it on a daily basis I  had some unexpected revelations related to having a smart watch on my wrist.

1. Most times I check my phone, in hindsight, I didn’t need to. If your phone is anything like mine, it is beeping, vibrating, and showing messages all day. Social media notifications, text messages, meeting alerts, game notifications, voice mails and news come in all day long. I’m constantly taking my phone out of my pocket and looking to see what’s going on. It might be an important message from a loved one right? It could be a client who needs a quick response on something important. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s something else. Most often it is something I’m either mildly interested in or didn't need to see at all.

There’s the tipping point between how annoying the notifications are and the time it takes to turn them off. The result is a game I downloaded and tried once can ping me once a month and I’ll not take the time to delete the app or turn off notifications. Unfortunately when that notification comes up each month, I take my phone out of my pocket to see what it might be.

The great thing about the smart watch on my wrist was I could direct  important notifications there and take a quick look. Most of the time, my phone stayed in the pocket.

2. Even when people don’t mention it, they notice how much you look at your phone. After having my Pebble for a few days we went over to my parent's house for dinner. My parents are very technically savvy and they are just as likely to be on their phone, iPad or computer as anyone in the family. We’ll talk about putting our phones away but it is also common our time together will include time with family members on their electronics. We had a nice evening together, ate dinner, went home. I didn’t consider anything was different than any other time hanging out with the folks.

A couple of days later I was talking to my mom on the phone. “I just wanted to let you know I noticed you weren’t on your phone much the other night. I really appreciated it, it was really nice. Thank you.” I was confused. I didn’t remember doing anything differently or putting any conscious effort into not checking my phone that night.

Then I realized, the Pebble on my wrist was a 2-stage filter for the notifications coming into my phone. First, unimportant notifications weren't sent to the Pebble in the first place. Second, for the notifications that did come through, a quick glance at my wrist could tell me what it was. Even if I responded more than usual, very little required my phone to leave my pocket. I honestly hadn’t noticed any difference. Mom did.

I was excited. I figured I had the golden ticket, I could stay on top of everything, but also not be that guy who was checking his phone all the time. I was wrong…

3. People seldom question your nonverbal communication. A few days after talking the conversation with my mom I was at a doctor’s appointment with our youngest daughter. We love Dr. Maggie... and she’s crazy. She is a wonderful mix of eastern and western medicine who has been a great help to the health of our family. Part of what makes her wonderful is she lacks a verbal filter saying exactly what she thinks at any given time. This includes brilliant medical evaluations and anything else that randomly pops into her head.

We’re in the doctor’s office talking about medical stuff and Dr. Maggie turns to me and says “Do you have somewhere else to be?” I didn’t. I had set aside the time for something important. I felt like I was engaged in the conversation and supporting my daughter. Confused by her question I said “No.” and asked “Why?”.

It turns out I was glancing at my “watch” much more often than was socially acceptable. Dr. Maggie called me on it.

I wondered how many other people assumed I was too busy for them or needed to get on to the next thing. I was looking at my “watch” more often than someone who just needs to know the time and was clearly communicating I was worried about something other than them.


It seems we’re on the cusp of another transition that will affect culture and communication. Will it become a natural thing to be glancing at your wrist every so often during a conversation?

Tim Cook recently spoke at the Goldman Sachs Conference and mentioned one of the features of the Apple watch is to nudge you if you’ve been sitting for too long and that “if you haven’t moved within the hour, ten minutes before the hour it’ll tap you”. Apparently in meetings at Apple ten minutes till the hour people will start standing up after being "nudged" by their watch.

I’ve had many meetings at Apple over the years. Like most people, I was on edge wondering how the meeting was going. I was constantly searching for those nonverbal cues to tell me how they were feeling about whatever it was we were sharing at the time.

Picture going into a meeting with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. Simply getting a meeting with Apple is a really big deal. You have been building your presentation for months, working to perfect every last detail. The meeting is supposed to last an hour. You notice every minute or two Tim is looking at his watch and then ten minutes before the end of the meeting he just stands up and starts pacing the room. Should you stand up too? Is he bored and wondering how soon your boring presentation will be over? Is he finally fed up and just going to walk out?

It is impossible to see from today all the changes in culture and communication that will be caused by people wearing computers on their wrists. If Apple has their way, the world will adapt and change, we will all learn the new dance.

Perhaps a few years from now glancing at your watch many times an hour will not communicate you are late, bored or feel like time is passing slowly.

At least for the immediate future the Apple Watch will be noticeable enough that people you meet with will notice it on your wrist. You’ll likely have the chance to explain how cool it is before your nonverbal cues communicate you really don’t want to be there. Just in case, don’t wear your Apple watch on any first dates.