Leave your phone out of meet­ings

For­get your mo­bile de­vice, the main thing is to be in the room

CityPress - - Careers - ROSS MCCAMMON ca­reers@city­press.co.za

May I check my mo­bile de­vice dur­ing a meet­ing? No. But what if I’m ex­pect­ing an im­por­tant call? No. Okay, fine – if you’re the most im­por­tant person in the room. Then there won’t be any im­me­di­ate so­cial reper­cus­sions from sneak­ing a look-see.

No one will ask you to put the phone away or stare at your fin­gers, try­ing to mind-meld you to keep you from tex­ting. But you will seem dis­en­gaged. And this is ob­vi­ously in­sult­ing to the other peo­ple in the room. But what if...? No. Okay, maybe – if the baby could come at any time (I’ve been there). Well, can I just set it down in front of me? That’s aw­ful. Oh, like you’ve never done that. Of course, I’ve done it. And I’m ashamed. We all should be ashamed.

About 10 years ago, with the ad­vent of text mes­sag­ing, we be­gan to loosen the rules. We be­gan ex­pand­ing the land­scape of so­cial sit­u­a­tions in which we should be able to check our de­vices any time we want – at a meet­ing, a movie, a bar, a bap­tism – and so we do. We de­cided that the de­vice was our as­sis­tant, agent, friend, per­sonal publi­cist and chron­i­cler. And that it was nec­es­sary. And so the de­vice be­came an ac­ces­sory. A crutch. A tool. But who is the tool here, re­ally?

The psy­chol­ogy

If you want to un­der­stand the way mo­bile de­vices af­fect how we so­cialise in busi­ness, look to a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist. Like, say, Ira Hy­man, a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor who stud­ies mem­ory, at­ten­tion, think­ing pro­cesses and con­scious­ness.

“When­ever peo­ple are in a sit­u­a­tion where they’re try­ing to track a so­cial in­ter­ac­tion they’re en­gaged in and track some­thing with their cell­phones, they’re en­gaged in a di­vided-at­ten­tion task,” says Hy­man.

“What this means is they’ll do both these things more poorly than if they did one of them. There’s al­ways a cost for the person en­gaged in this mul­ti­task­ing. It’s go­ing to dis­rupt their abil­ity to track the con­ver­sa­tion and their abil­ity to use their cell­phone for other tasks.”

Re­searchers have found that the mere pres­ence of a cell­phone in a so­cial sit­u­a­tion can dis­tract the par­tic­i­pants and dis­rupt the con­ver­sa­tion.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about this is not the psy­chol­ogy – the psy­chol­ogy is ob­vi­ous. It’s the eti­quette. But Hy­man has some­thing to say about that too.

The eti­quette

The prob­lem is that we haven’t set­tled on any rules yet. Hy­man and his col­league, Deb­o­rah Kirby For­gays, con­ducted a study, pub­lished last year, in which peo­ple of var­i­ous ages were asked about their views on mo­bile-de­vice use in so­cial sit­u­a­tions. As you might ex­pect, “the youngs” think it’s ac­cept­able to use a mo­bile de­vice in more sit­u­a­tions than older peo­ple do. “I don’t think ei­ther of these is the ‘right an­swer’,” Hy­man says, as an ob­jec­tive re­searcher should.

“I don’t think our so­ci­ety has ac­tu­ally set­tled on a set of ex­pec­ta­tions yet. The stick­i­ness is in the ex­pec­ta­tion about how quickly peo­ple should get back to you. So if you send me a text or an email, how soon am I ex­pected to get back?

“Older pop­u­la­tions don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect con­stant, im­me­di­ate re­sponses. Younger groups ex­pect more im­me­di­ate re­sponses, both for so­cial sit­u­a­tions and, I would imag­ine, pro­fes­sion­ally.”

The younger peo­ple are wrong, Ira! For Hy­man, of course, it’s not so cut and dried. “It’s your so­cial tool, but it’s your pro­fes­sional tool as well,” he says. “I see peo­ple us­ing cell­phones as part of the con­ver­sa­tion – to look things up, check things, share things around the ta­ble. They can be in­cred­i­bly use­ful tools in these sit­u­a­tions. It’s just that we’re still fig­ur­ing out the eti­quette of it. I don’t think it’s set­tled at all. And I don’t think [the older] gen­er­a­tion is go­ing to set­tle it.”

That dis­trac­tion we feel when we know (or even just as­sume) that some­one has tried to reach us but we haven’t yet re­sponded – a tweet, an email, an SMS – is what one of my col­leagues calls “so­cial panic”. He’s right. We do panic. But what are we pan­ick­ing about?

I’ll be gen­er­ous to the young gen­er­a­tion. When we check our phones in a meet­ing, maybe we’re al­le­vi­at­ing one dis­trac­tion to fo­cus on the mat­ter at hand. But what the young and old must do is not be dis­tracted.

This idea that we must im­me­di­ately re­spond – even to elim­i­nate a dis­trac­tion so we can fo­cus bet­ter – is short­sighted and im­ma­ture. And it un­der­mines a fun­da­men­tal truth about busi­ness, that is, there’s noth­ing more fruit­ful than be­ing in a room.

You’ve got to get in the room. And once you’re in it, the person in the room should be treated as the most im­por­tant person in the world. The de­vice can wait. Don’t check it. Don’t have it out on the ta­ble in front of you. Don’t even think about it. Stop think­ing about it.

That’s bet­ter. Once you stop mak­ing it avail­able to your­self, the de­vice is no longer a tool. And nei­ther are you. – En­trepreneur.com

WHO’S THE TOOL? Smart­phones are ex­tremely use­ful tools, so­cially and pro­fes­sion­ally. The prob­lem is that we haven’t yet fig­ured out the eti­quette of us­ing them

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