Modern Etiquette: We interrupt this meeting for an email

Mon Apr 19, 2010 1:20am EDT
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By Richard Baum

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Do you check your BlackBerry during work meetings? Do you do it furtively under the table, while your colleagues are distracted by a presentation?

Do you leave it in front of you so you can give it the occasional peck whenever it buzzes? Or are you bold enough in the board room to hold it up while you type your replies, a practice that's provoked comedian Jerry Seinfeld to respond, "Can I just pick up a magazine and read it in front of your face while you're talking to me?"

Unless you work in a company that bans BlackBerry use in meetings, you've seen all these behaviors. Most likely, you've been that person. But is it bad etiquette? Don't the pressures of time and overflowing inboxes make this a necessary evil of the 21st century workplace?

Other journalists who have taken time out from deleting email to investigate this burning issue have concluded that polite society abhors the employee whose eyes wander from the PowerPoint presentation to the new email alert.

But as someone who struggles to ignore the siren buzz of the BlackBerry, I demand leave to appeal this collective ruling by the media's finest minds. After all, every new technology that transforms communications encounters resistance from the old guard. Surely the cool kids accept that it is possible to concentrate on a meeting and accept email requests for other meetings at the same time?

It didn't take much Googling to find some research that confirmed my hunch: while 68 percent of the baby-boom generation born before 1964 think that the use of smartphones during meetings is distracting, just 49 percent of the under-30s see a problem. As this 2008 LexisNexis survey helpfully points out, that's less than half. If the person running your meeting is a Generation Y'er, there's a better than even chance that she won't mind you checking your email.

Still, most of us have bosses who are too old to skateboard to work. What does Generation X think of BlackBerry peckers? I asked John Freeman, a member of that demographic and the author of The Tyranny of Email:

"You never have everyone's full attention in a meeting any longer, and I think that's why meetings are becoming so ineffective," he wrote in a non-tyrannical email.   Continued...

<p>A person poses while using a Blackberry Bold 2 smartphone at the Research in Motion (RIM) headquarters in Waterloo, November 16, 2009. Picture taken November 16, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>