April 19, 2010 / 5:22 AM / 9 years ago

Modern Etiquette: We interrupt this meeting for an email

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?

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

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.

“Whether it’s the lot who try to thumb under the table, or those who brazenly do it in the open, the message, from a significant group of those gathered, is - I have other things to do. Which totally defeats the purpose of meeting: you want to create a sense of group purpose. And on top of that it’s rude.”

But John, I can multitask. It may look like I’m updating my Facebook status under the table, but a co-worker has sent me an urgent question and I can answer that and concentrate on your presentation at the same time. Surely I can get an expert on multitasking to back me up here.

I called Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in California. Nass was part of a group that researched the concentration skills of students who frequently multitasked while consuming media. Did he find that those of us who listen and email at the same time are an elite brigade of hyper-efficient workers? Not exactly.

“The more you multitask, the worse you become at it,” he said. According to the Stanford team’s research, there’s a cost to memory and attention when you switch from one task to another. And that cost increases for people who multitask heavily.

So the science suggests that the appearance of not paying attention when you check your email in a meeting mirrors the reality: however much you think you’re paying attention to two things at once, you’re not.

And yet the BlackBerry sits there in my pocket, calling to me throughout the meeting: Check me! Check me! What can I do?

“You have to become more cognizant that what you’re doing is likely to be offensive to others,” said Robert Gordon, who coaches adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Gordon, who is based in Toronto, says the strategy for executives struggling with ADHD is to separate them from their distractions. So in the case of a BlackBerry, that means shutting it off. I make a final plea. Rob, there are parts of many meetings that aren’t relevant to me. What if I check my email then?

“Then the onus falls on the person calling the meeting to be more focused on the agenda,” he said.

So there’s the answer. It’s not my fault I’m rudely checking my BlackBerry. It’s your fault for not making the meeting more interesting. And that’s just plain bad etiquette.

(Richard Baum is the global editor, consumer media for Reuters. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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