Buzz off: Fixing mobile's interruption culture

Checking your email and responding to every alert at dinner, in meetings, and so on is simply bad etiquette

I did it again: I reached for my smartphone. I'm sitting at my laptop, winding down from the day, and catching up on my to-do list. I have all my feeds up in different windows, and I actually reached for my phone. It is lying next to the computer, face down, not on purpose but because that's how I put it down. It is a Pavlovian response.

The phone vibrated -- and not one of those wimpy buzzes. It's sitting on a 60-year-old pine wood desk, so it resonates strongly against the hard wood surface. I reach for it, even knowing that if I look around on my screen in front of me I can probably see what set it off. There's a satisfaction as I pick it up and check the notifications. The endorphins fire in my brain: Someone has reached out.

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For many people, it's a status symbol to reach for the smartphone. "You are important, someone wants you!" You can be sitting and talking to someone, and it takes real willpower not to glance at the phone when it buzzes. "Don't these other people know I'm important -- someone needs something from me!" It doesn't matter that you were in the middle of an important conversation or there are 10 other people around the table with you. You reach for it anyway and start typing away. A response is necessary. It has to be immediate, etiquette be damned. If Miss Manners were actually dead (she's alive and kicking), she'd be rolling over in her grave.

The real question is whether this behavior is something we should be giving into. None of us has an issue with surfing the Web on our own time or sending a tweet or checking Facebook during a lull in the day. Yet there is a certain amount of disdain and even anger when it happens to you.

You know how meetings start these days. It's the first thing said: "Please turn your phone to vibrate or off." There's always someone in the room who forgets to do it or believes he or she is too important for the directive to apply. That person can't wait until the air in the room is alive with his or her latest ringtone. Maybe it's Pitbull or Beyoncé that shatters the calm of the room.

Sometimes that person shoots you the "oops, sorry, I thought I had it set on vibrate" look while reaching into the pocket and flicking the smartphone's switch to vibrate. Other times, the person steps out of the room -- that person's business is more important than this meeting. Only you know it isn't an emergency call; it's a way of asserting importance. (In perhaps an overreaction, I've been know to replace such an obnoxious person's current ringtone when he or she isn't paying attention with either Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" or Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy.")

Let's not forget those people who put their smartphones on vibrate, then place them on the conference room table next to their laptops or tablets. It's the old passive-aggressive "let's make a louder noise when the phone vibrates against the table and interrupts everyone." Then there is the other type of person, who turns the smartphone to silent mode but responds every time the face of the phone lights up with a notification.

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