An E-Free Holiday

Flickr / paullew

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans have been petitioning retailers from opening on Thanksgiving Day, arguing that it is eroding traditional family values. Not only would retail workers have to show up to work and lose out on what has traditionally been a vacation day, bargain hunters would leave their family meals early in order to shop. Critics of Black Friday also point to the irony that just hours after we have given thanks for all we have, we rush out gorge ourselves on material goods.

While I personally do not disagree with these petitions, I think there is an even greater danger to family time under our noses that we’re just not paying attention to: our addiction to digital technologies. And I’m including myself.

We just have to take a look around. At family dinners at restaurants or on the subway ride home, we are constantly on our devices. Over the weekend, I met up with a group of friends.  After the usual chatter about the cold weather and our latest job updates, the conversation immediately turned to the latest gadgets and apps, and whether we saw what our friend had posted to Facebook last night.  In the few hours we spent together, nearly all us (me included!) were on our phones at some point to reply to a text (to someone who wasn’t with us at the moment), snap a picture for Instagram or check an email.

Undeniably, digital technologies are tools that help us connect with one another and learn together—a Skype session with family that is far away, a friendly game of Mario Kart against grandmother and grandson, a father teaching his kids about football while watching the game together on Thanksgiving. There are many ways that technology can enhance our connections rather than disconnecting us from the people around us.

But while I agree that it is sad that the meaning of Thanksgiving is slowly being eroded by a growing demand for material goods, I don’t believe that retailers are to blame for diminishing family time. Nor are digital technologies to blame. We have no one to point fingers at but ourselves because we do this every day, and sadly we will likely do this on Thanksgiving as well—whether we are shopping or not. Family time is being interrupted everyday by the technologies around us because we let them (with instant replies and continuous check-ins).

This week, many of us will be traveling far and wide to see family we haven’t seen in months. Kids will be seeing their grandparents and long lost cousins. So let’s make a pact to have an e-free holiday. Let’s forget about snapping that picture of the perfect turkey for Facebook, overlook re-tweeting the latest celeb tweet, and stop worrying about the number of likes we’ll get on Instagram. Let’s focus on those around us.  Instead of editing our pictures to get the right colors, let’s capture mental pictures that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Let’s give a real “thumbs up” or an extra hug to those around us to let them know in reality that we like them.

What else can we talk about if we’re not talking about gadgets and social media?  Bit of a brain teaser isn’t it?  If you’re having trouble thinking of some deeper topics, here are some conversation starters for family members of all ages (it may even be interesting to see how kids answer some of these questions vs. how the adults answer):

  1. What is happiness to you?
  2. What makes you smile?
  3. If you could do anything in the world at this moment what would it be (non-tech… playing video games wouldn’t count, for example)
  4. If you could be anything in the universe, what would you be and why?
  5. If you had $5m right now, what would you do with it and why?
  6. If a Genie granted you 3 wishes, what would they be?

Let’s take the time to get to know each other better this holiday by having more unmediated conversations.  As Omid Safi recently wrote, we need to inquire about each other’s state of being (how is our heart, how are we feeling), not just doing (what is on our to-do list).  As he says, we need to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.

This week, let’s take time to strengthen our relationships with the people that matter most to us, and not let technology take over… so regardless of whether we are on or offline, we are still connected.  And let’s continue this pact every time we are with our loved ones, not just on Thanksgiving.