A wise person once told me you should spend money on the things you use the most. You sleep in your bed every night, so buy a mattress that suits you. For me, my smartphone is my lifeline, professionally and personally. The minute my smartphone shows signs of going downhill, I upgrade—no excuses.
I know I am not the only person who uses their smartphone multiple times an hour, so I am hopeful others will be able to relate to the challenge I have been struggling with the past few years. How do you find the proper balance between being responsive and being present, especially during a time of enhanced digital connectivity?
In recent years, I have tried to determine if there are actual hard-and-fast answers to the following questions, among others: If you are in a work meeting and you get a personal call/email/text from someone, should you answer/read/respond immediately? Are there exceptions? If you are having lunch with a personal acquaintance and you get a call/email/text from a professional colleague, should you answer/read/respond immediately? Again, are there exceptions?
Is it appropriate to allow your eyes to drift to check social media or news notifications on your phone in the middle of a conversation? Is it even polite to have your phone on the table (face up or face down) while you are meeting with someone?
To put it simply, the answers are complicated. The best answer I can come up with is, “it depends” on the circumstances for each of these questions. In no way am I trying to give myself or anyone else an out for making up the rules as they go. I believe most of this will come down to personal credibility. If you abuse the privilege and are too responsive and never present or too present and never available, it might very well catch up with you.
Since everyone has their own styles, I think agreeing to begin any interaction by giving another individual the benefit of the doubt is a place to start. The other person is then responsible for using discriminating judgment and trying to be as engaged as possible while politely and/or transparently communicating when he/she might need to excuse himself or herself, literally or figuratively.
That means people are going to generally agree to a basic code that they will use good judgment and be truthful and accommodating. If/when people do lie (or cry wolf) about the “need” to split their attention, the system collapses, so this is hardly a foolproof answer.
For my own survival and protections, I have tried to develop some behaviors and parameters to operate by, but they are hardly one-size-fits-all. For example, I ask my colleagues to call my smartphone multiple times in succession if they need to get my attention immediately, especially while I am in a meeting or outside of normal business hours, and that I agree to not express annoyance if they do this. They know I will not abuse that same privilege with them, and that I expect the same courtesy in return.
My hope is that, until Miss Manners or another “expert” in the field of civility publishes the preeminent guidance of how to balance responsiveness and presence, we will all cut one another some slack. After all, we are just trying to run a civilization here. At least that is what I thought we were trying to do before I read that last text message.•
Rateike is founder and owner of BAR Communications and served as director of cabinet communications for President Donald Trump. Send comments to email@example.com.
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