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

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Where has civility gone? It's gotten so bad that people now play the restaurant check game. Everyone puts his or her smartphone in the middle of the table, and the first one to grab his or hers during the meal is responsible for the check. Yet, this very rarely stops people from picking up the smartphone during the meal. The endorphin rush is too much.

How many times have you reached into your pocket to check your smartphone because you felt that phantom vibration? You know the one, where you leave the smartphone in your car or on your desk, yet you still feel it vibrate. The look on your face as you try and cover up the fact that your smartphone isn't in your pocket even though you felt it go off is priceless. But it doesn't stop you from doing it again five minutes later.

I talked about this phenomenon with a group of people on Twitter recently; we chatted about how you teach etiquette. Do you have rules as a business? My boss always had a rule that no laptops could be open during a meeting. That quickly morphed to the rule that they could only be open if you were using it to take notes, and he reserved the right to check that was what you were in fact doing. But how do you do that when everyone has a smartphone or a tablet?

Let's be fair: I spent some of my time in the enterprise running a help desk and providing third-level support. There was a time I didn't have a choice but answer the phone or the two-way pager. It's an awfully hard habit to break. In fact, my younger daughter has been known to put her foot down and demand I give her my smartphone during dinner. If I remember, I try and leave it in the other room. I have also set up special ringtones and vibration patterns for family, so I can distinguish who's calling. (No, the family's ringtone isn't Carly Rae Jepsen, although my youngest is making a ringtone for me that says, "Daddy, pick up the phone, c'mon Daddy, pick it up already, you slowpoke!")

You can't just tell people what you want them to do; instead you have to demonstrate and model the behaviors. You need a culture of etiquette at every level of the organization. But as much as it is a culture of etiquette, it's a culture of respect. And you have to give some to get some. I can't expect the people who work for me not to check their devices while I'm talking to them if I do the same thing to them.

That doesn't mean you never answer the phone or check it -- there could be an emergency, but that situation isn't the norm. The etiquette has to be based on common sense: Smartphones don't sit on the table. You make meetings short, and you invite only the appropriate people. Your conference calls don't have 50 people attending them. If the meeting or call really isn't a goof use of their time, people will do other things when they can during them. Why put them in that position?

In the meantime, my smartphone just went off again. I really need to see who it is.

This article, "Buzz off: Fixing mobile's interruption culture," originally appeared at A Screw's Loose and is republished at with permission (© Brian Katz). Read more of Brian Katz's The Squeaky Wheel blog at or at A Screw's Loose. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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