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Stop looking at your smartphone & listen to me!

Monday, October 28, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

smartphoneIf you are reading this blog post while in a meeting, please know it’s twice as likely women will be offended by your behavior than will men. That’s the finding of a new research study from Howard University and the USC Marshall School of Business Center for Management Communication. The study looks at perceptions of the person who uses a smart phone during either formal or informal meetings and their findings are intriguingly varied by gender, age, geographical location, income level, and even the number of people attending the meeting.

The research samples 554 full-time working professionals (204 employees at an East Coast beverage distributor and a nation-wide, random sample survey of 350 business professionals in the United States who earned more than $30K in income and were employed by companies with at least 50 employees). They asked survey participants for their reactions to the following smart phone use behaviors in both formal and informal meetings: making or answering calls, writing and sending texts or emails, checking text messages or emails, browsing the internet, checking time with the phone, checking incoming calls, bringing a phone to a meeting, and excusing oneself to answer calls.

Here are highlights of their findings:

The majority of Americans still consider it unacceptable to use smart phones during meetings. “In particular, making or taking calls, writing and sending texts or emails, checking text messages or emails, and browsing the internet are considered strongly inappropriate during formal business meetings.” While these actions are slightly more accepted during informal meetings, the majority still consider them unacceptable.

Younger professionals (age 21-30 years) consider checking texts and emails appropriate during formal meetings. “They are 3x more likely to consider this appropriate than professionals above 40 years of age.” In informal meetings, younger professionals think checking email and text, answering calls and even writing texts and emails appropriate–while those above 41 years of age beg to differ.

Men are twice as accepting as women of checking texts, sending texts, and answering calls during informal meetings.

Along the Western coast, professionals were least accepting of smart phone use during formal meetings. In the Southwest, professionals were least accepting of smart phone use during informal meetings.

Professionals with higher incomes are less accepting of mobile phone use in meetings. The researchers suspect that those with higher incomes are typically high-status and do not like subordinates whose attention strays during meetings.

Just setting your phone on the table at a working lunch with five other people is seen as rude by 20% of the survey responders. And your use of “Excuse me” prior to taking that call is not cutting it. More than 30% of the survey respondents think it is “rarely or never” appropriate “during informal/offsite lunch meetings”.

Overall, the researchers say these findings communicate the importance of using smartphones respectfully in meetings and recommend organizations use the data provided in their report to illustrate the “dramatic generational and gender differences” in perceptions of smart phone use during workplace gatherings.

While these results are striking, we would point out that the researchers asked survey participants for what they consider rude in others and not what they themselves do behaviorally. The findings are therefore subject to the fundamental attribution error since the observer often attributes behavior to character traits (like being rude and disrespectful to others in general), while the actor attributes their behavior to situational demands (like needing to respond quickly or awaiting a return call from a difficult to reach client). In essence, these are ‘leading questions’, which by their nature heighten awareness and sensitivity to the subject under examination. If they had asked us, we could have edited the questions to minimize this effect and avoided this weakness in the study.

As professionals who rely on smartphones to stay in touch with clients, keep projects in motion, field questions from outside the room about aspects of our work on the case at hand, et cetera, it is very tempting to rationalize checking messages constantly, and I confess my guilt at doing it when this research (and common courtesy) would suggest I’d be better served to wait. So here are a couple of suggestions for how to handle it.

Get over the need to be constantly wired. Know in advance whether something is so hot it requires immediate attention, and if nothing is that pressing, put your silenced phone somewhere that you can’t reach until after the meeting is recessed.

If there is something that must be dealt with during a meeting time or luncheon, anticipate to the others at the meeting the possibility of an interruption, apologize in advance, and if possible, explain to them why it is so urgent that it justifies your being distracted and your wasting their time.

If you are not entirely familiar with the organizational culture of the group you are meeting with (for instance, you are meeting with clients you are not entirely familiar with), don’t look to the young men in the room for cues about what is and is not acceptable. You are likely to turn off some of the group even if several don’t mind at all. Do you really want to risk insulting half of your client group? The safe bet is to keep your phone set on ‘chill’, and ignore it until you are by yourself.

Pretend that your clients or customers ‘know’ whether or not your smart phone use is truly urgent, and resist any compulsive but non-urgent usage. I have been in meetings (and even in trial) where attorneys or staff are checking sports scores, stock quotes, and playing solitaire. In one case, jurors noticed that a lawyer– sitting at counsel table– was playing online poker. If he doesn’t care about the testimony, why should the jury?

As professionals who rely on smartphones to maintain contact with busy attorney clients and who need to talk to our support team at somewhat unpredictable times, we chafe a bit over these findings, while admitting that we knew it all along. There is a reason that our parents wouldn’t let us answer the phone during dinner. And we know smartphone users can be obnoxious and annoying. These results are useful information to consider when it comes to workplace relationships and the maintenance of respect for those around us.

Washington, MC, Okoro, EA, & Cardon, PW (2013). Perceptions of Civility for Mobile Phone Use in Formal and Informal Meetings. Business Communication Quarterly.

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