RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Do cell-phone calls trump talking person-to-person?

February 7, 2005

I've been watching the wireless revolution in business, and I'm fascinated by how people are fitting technology into etiquette. For example, in one recent meeting, I saw people jumping up and down like a Whacka-Mole game, scuttling from the room each time their cell phones commanded them to.

The phones were muted, so nobody heard the rings, but it's not conducive to coherence in a meeting to have people running in and out like the Secret Service at a state dinner. I'm sure the attendees were convinced both that their calls were imperative and that they were being as discreet as possible.

Perhaps they were right on both counts, but I have to wonder why they were at the meeting at all when their departments were so obviously on the brink of utter ruin and demanded such constant attention. At the break, the cell phone commandos were already out there, pacing back and forth while apparently solving knotty problems back at the ranch.

If phones are tough on meetings, they're perhaps even tougher on their owners. It used to be that if you got a call while communing with others, somebody announced it to you in low tones and you had a chance to disengage gracefully. Now it's sudden. You don't have those moments to make apologies, smooth ruffled feelings and prepare yourself for another conversation. It's a harsh way to change mental gears. It communicates to your colleagues that they've abruptly been upstaged. It's a little like being interrupted by an insistent drunk.

I've also seen a sharp rise in people answering e-mail during meetings. This habit varies by professional field, I think. It appears to be ubiquitous among technology workers. I'm constantly in meetings where everybody brings a laptop and busily taps away during the proceedings, but amazingly seems to be able to follow the conversation effortlessly while writing. In meetings between technoids, it seems to be no big thing to have everybody busy at a keyboard while sitting around a table together. The culture is different. No one takes offense.

It doesn't even take a full laptop to pull eye contact down and onto a screen. The rise of small e-mail readers like RIM's Blackberry (www.blackberry.com) makes it easier to carry e-mail around with you, even in meetings where laptops are intrusive. You can get an e-mail, glance at it, then put the Blackberry back on your hip. Text messaging has become a habit with many businesspeople, too. They can send private messages to other attendees and pick up messages in real time from the outside world. But whatever they're doing on a keypad, it still requires the user to look down instead of at the speaker, which is considered rude in many circles.

Etiquette experts often split the difference by recommending that you let everyone in a gathering know if you're expecting a call. This seems unrealistic to me. Today's business isn't that orderly. We don't use cell phones for emergencies. We use them as we would use our desk phones, and that's what irritates so many of our colleagues. It used to be that human talk trumped phone calls. Today, that's often reversed. The meeting may still be going on, but a call is ephemeral, like smoke that must be captured immediately.

Interest in techno-etiquette has grown as communications technology has become smaller and more pervasive. The Protocol School of Palm Beach, for example, has a Web page about cell phone conversations (www.etiquetteexpert.com/seminars_2.htm). The page repeats the results of a Sprint survey of how phones are used in public. Apparently, everybody believes cell-phone users are discourteous, but nobody believes that they, themselves, are discourteous.

For example, according to the Web page, Sprint found that 80 percent of Americans believe people are less courteous on cell phones than they were five years ago, but 97 percent felt they weren't the discourteous ones. The survey also found that 93 percent felt that taking a call during a meeting was discourteous. I must have a lot of contact with that rogue 7 percent.

Other sites on the subject include www.cell-phone-etiquette.com, and Yahoo at ask.yahoo.com/ask/20030530.html. Fortune has weighed in on the issue, too (www.fortune.com). For $4, you can order "Turn Off That Cell Phone" from Harvard Business Online (www.hbsp.harvard. edu/b01/en/common/item_detail.jhtml?id= C0005C). Business Training Works (www.businesstrainingworks.com) will also teach you the fine points of techno-etiquette. So not only do you have to pay for the technology and pay someone to teach you how to use it, you have to pay for someone to teach you how to refrain.



Altom is owner of Element Associates, a technical communications consulting firm (www.elementassoc.com). His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim@elementassoc.com.
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