You’re sitting on the couch, looking at your phone. Your husband, or wife, or lover, or partner, looks at you and says, “Whatch doin’?”
What do you say? One of the most common responses — and it happens with all couples I talk to, whether young or old, gay or straight, and regardless of the city or country they live in — is: “…nothin’.”
It’s the kind of conversation that is empty and pointless on the surface (if you look only at the words spoken and their literal meanings), but that can escalate into something huge and emotional depending on how the people in the couple decide to proceed.
If an alien race, or a robot, were to see how many conversations that start with “Whatcha doin’?” — “Nothin’.” end up in an argument, I’m sure they would be completely baffled. As a person who has spent many years working in artificial intelligence, I can tell you that while we have computer programs that can outplay humans in chess and diagnose cancer better than physicians… we are still a far cry from having a computer program that understand why the “Whatcha doin’?” — “Nothin'” conversation can be such a source of raised blood pressures and deep resentments.
Before we go any further, I should ask: which person are you?
I don’t simply mean, “which side of that conversation do you experience more often?” That may be a part of what I’m asking; but I’m also asking which side of the conversation you empathize with more. Are you more annoyed by the obviously unnecessary question (“You can see that I’m looking at my phone, can’t you?”) or the obviously false answer (“It’s clear that you’re not literally doing nothing!”)? There seem to be particular personality types who tend to “feel for” one end or the other in this scenario… and then, of course, there are people who will waggle back and forth between the two sides depending on their mood.
Me? I tend to be a “Nothin'” guy. When I say, “Nothin'”, what I really mean is:
“I’m doing the exact same thing I’m always doing when you ask me this question while I’m looking at my phone. I’m quickly sifting through new emails and posts on Facebook, to see whether there is anything that I can dash off a quick reply to or that absolutely demands my attention right now. But since that’s the case 90% of the time that I’m looking at my phone, I feel really stupid saying that same thing over and over so it would help me out a lot if you’d just assume that that is what I’m doing when I’m looking at my phone, instead of asking me.”
That’s what “nothing” means, in that context, when I say it. And I will admit: I say it often.
The problem is, I’m answering the wrong question….
Because when someone says, “Whatcha doin’?” they aren’t actually asking you what you are doing. (Shocking, I know.) They are requesting that you be present with them, and share some aspect of your experience with them so that the two of you can have a moment where you are living your lives in synchrony with one another. They are saying: “Each of us is on our own personal path in this cold universe, so let’s walk side by side for just a moment and be witness to each others’ lives!”
Now, there are times when I answer properly. It depends on my mood. A well-timed “Whatcha doin?” can trigger a 10-minute bubbly exposition from me on the deep philosophical debate I was having on social media about whether or not belief in free will is linked to the psychological phenomenon of internal versus external locus of control (….or whatever….).
That kind of response is met with a smile… unless, of course, he actually just wanted information about what I was doing, in which case he tunes out after the first half-sentence or so.
It can be so difficult to tell.
It’s also worth pointing out that if someone answers your “whatcha doin’?” with “Nothing”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t realize what you are truly asking. They could know that you are looking for a more personal interaction and engagement with you, but simply be too tired for it, or not in the mood, or they could honestly be concentrating on something very hard that that whatever it is that they are seeing on their phone is making them think about.
In that case, “Nothing” means: I know you’re looking to bond with me right now, but I can’t or don’t want to at this particular moment in time.”
Which is a fine answer, or should be… except that if it happens too regularly, “Nothing” ends up sounding a lot like “I don’t ever want to be bothered to share my thoughts and feelings with you,” and that can lead to problems.
You want to know how you can tell if you’ve got some serious problems in your relationship?
Do you ever ask “Whatcha doin’?” when what you really mean is: “Are you looking at porn, messages from hookups, or people who you think are more attractive than me?”
Conversely, do you ever say “Nothing” because deep inside you assume that the person asking “Whatcha doin’?” is actually suspicious about those things and is trying to pry?
Being on either side of that is a bad sign. Even if its only in one person’s mind, that lack of trust can really drag a relationship down hill.
I remember having a conversation with my friend Mike several years ago, where he was talking about this type of dynamic with his girlfriend. He said sometimes, she would call in the middle of the day and ask him, “What are you up to?” and he would feel excited that she was interested in knowing about his day. Other times, however, she would call in the middle of the day and ask him, “What are you up to?” and he would think, “Why is she so nosy? Doesn’t she trust me?”
The real revelation, he said, was when he realized the only difference was in his own head.
The “Whatcha doin’?” — “Nothin'” conversation isn’t unique to the digital age: the conversation can easily happen when your partner walks in on you reading a book, or even just staring into space. But it does seem more prevalent now that we all spend more time staring into the black mirror: our phones, our iPads, our computer screens. More and more our attention is not in the present place and time, so if someone wants to make a connection with us they have to say something to get us yanked back so that our mind is occupying the same physical space as our body… and as the other person.
So how does someone accomplish that?
It’s as good a way as any to say “Hey, please be present with me for a moment.”
And now that you know what it means, you can answer accordingly.