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There is an iconic scene is the 1976 movie Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro, manically pointing a gun at a mirror, utters the now well-worn phrase: “You talkin’ to me?” The statement carved its way into pop culture as a bit of chest-thumping rhetoric, where the question was a line of bravado without an intended answer. Today, with the rapid adoption of wearable technology like Bluetooth headsets, the phrase is more likely to be asked in a genuine manner: “You talkin’ to me? Are you talking to me?”

This is a frustrating trend. We are only beginning to address the intrusion these devices create in public places and spaces. The social norms of how and when we use devices like a Bluetooth are still being established. The conversation will become livelier if Google Glass, wearable technology that resembles racquetball goggles, is embraced by the general public when it’s fully released next year.

One unusual sight is seeing a person keep their Bluetooth device in while NOT using the device; wearing the Bluetooth as if it were an earring or baseball cap. If you scan around a restaurant next time you are out, there is a decent chance that you will see a person keeping an electronic device in their ear—while maintaining a conversation with their tablemate. The device stuck to their ear sends a pretty strong nonverbal cue:   “Where I am and what I am doing now is not where I actually am or want to be.”

Consider, for a minute, why as Americans we place such a high level of importance on eye contact. How does it feel when someone is talking to you without making eye contact? You find the person disinterested, distracted, or emotionally detached. Likewise, it can feel extremely uncomfortable to be next to a person with a Bluetooth still stuck in their ear. They are not fully present and that bothers us.

The Bluetooth-wearing individual may be triggering certain psychobiological safety and survival mechanisms that create this feeling of unease. It disrupts our ability to fully understand what the person around us is doing. Wearable technology alters our normal space and time construct that allows us to appreciate our surroundings.  It has created a crop of electronic phantoms that are physically, but not mentally, present.

It has yet to be seen how far social norms will bend with wearable technology. What was once seen as rude behavior (i.e. taking out your smartphone in a meeting) can later reach the point of acceptability. The pendulum swings both ways, though. We have seen this in case entertainment venues that are creating stricter policies to prevent the annoyance of a ringing/buzzing phone during an event. Likewise, many of us are getting awfully tired of having to do our best De Niro impression. Next time, let us know when you’re talking.

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