Monday, June 8, 2009

Technology Etiquette - Confusion Reigns

Several months ago I attended a seminar with a junior colleague of mine. There were about 40 people in attendance, including some of our firm's clients. About five minutes into the talk, my colleague, who was sitting a few seats away from me, got out his handheld device and tapped the keys furiously for about two minutes, then put it down. A moment later, he did the same thing and continued thus for the duration of the seminar.

Needless to say, I was mortified. I was not the only one who noticed him doing this and in fact, several of our clients were glaring at him openly. I couldn't believe he was text-messaging a friend during a seminar, and one organized by clients no less. As we left, I mentioned that there is an expectation that we put our cell phones and Blackberries away while someone is talking and it's inappropriate to check e-mails or send text messages during a presentation. He looked at me incredulously and, with more than a hit of condescension, said: "I wasn't texting. I was taking notes, the modern way". Boy, did I feel ancient.

Today, my business partner Martin Waxman, who is attending a PR conference in Vancouver, said he was one of few people live-tweeting the morning session. I suggested that maybe his fellow attendees didn't want to give the impression that they weren't paying attention.

Each of these anecdotes raise an important question about technology etiquette. While it has long been accepted that a speaker, any speaker, deserves the courtesy of your full attention, where does tweeting come into the mix? And if you prefer to tap out your conference notes rather than use a pen and paper, how do you let people know that's what you are doing?

In matters of etiquette, the golden rule is to move through life's situations with a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. What's important in a meeting or conference situation then, is to gauge the environment as you walk in. If you're in a small meeting of senior colleagues and clients, all of whom have turned off their cell phones, then you will most likely offend by choosing to use yours in front of them. If, however, you're at a panel discussion on how to tweet with style, then chances are, you will be one of many who tweet while they listen. The point is to learn to "read" each situation and act accordingly. Personally, I prefer to focus on what people are saying, digest it and share later, but that's just me.
If you're hosting a meeting or presenting a seminar, do everyone a favour and explain the code of conduct at the beginning. If you prefer not to be interupted by ringing cell phones and beeping handhelds, politely request that everyone turn their cell phones off at the beginning. They may not heed your request, but at least it will be out there. Build e-mail and voicemail breaks into the schedule and let people know when they are. If you're comfortable with guests tweeting your words of wisdom, then give them permission at the start. By You'll put everyone at ease and remove confusion and judgement.

One more thing. If you are one of those who takes electronic notes or tweets during conferences, keep it to that please. Don't use it as an excuse to multi-task by responding to e-mails. That's just rude!


  1. Hi Louise,

    I found your post very interesting because it really does seem like the lines have been blurred about when it’s ok to use technology and when it’s not. I am currently a student in the PR program at Humber College and have found that in both my educational setting as well as at professional meetings, people have no qualms about pulling out their blackberries mid-meeting. While most of us are guilty of sneaking peeks at messages, it really does signal a lack of respect for the people around us. Although it depends on the atmosphere of the occasion, I’m not sure that tweeting about your whereabouts is as significant as being an engaged listener or participant of a discussion.

  2. Great points Kristina. Studies have shown that while two thirds of baby boomers said personal digital devices contribute to a decline in workplace etiquette, fewer than half of workers under 28 agree so I think there's a bit of a generation gap. But while it may be more acceptable (or unavoidable) in an academic setting our brains are still only programmed to focus on one thing at a time. Personally, I find 140-character tweets from a seminar aren't useful. I would rather poeple pay attention and then blog the highlights afterwards.

  3. Although being an avid BlackBerry user myself, I completely agree with your arguments, Louise. Like social media outlets such as Twitter, the incorporation of the BlackBerry into everyday activities is still a relatively new concept, so I think it's natural that proper etiquette has yet to be properly established.

    That being said, I would think that individuals would also resort to using common sense. Pulling out your phone to play Brickbreaker or check e-mails during a meeting or conference is disrespectful to the speaker, and can be distracting to others. I even battle the same frustrations when out to dinner with friends. Thus, I completely agree that there is a time and place for everything, and that it is up to BlackBerry users to make appropriate judgments about when a situation may warrant phone use (and when the traditional paper and pen may be more appropriate than typing notes on one's phone).

    While I also agree that there exists a generation gap (my grandmother can't stand the mere sight of my BlackBerry), perhaps a good start may involve referring to the many etiquette tips that are available online. Or, better yet, maybe cell phone companies will start including a section on proper etiquette in the phone's user guide!

  4. Louise, thanks for opening up this discussion. I spend most of my professional development event time in situations where people think nothing of being online be it laptops, blackberries, iPhones or whatever. It's perfectly acceptable in these situations.

    I've also be in plenty of situations where the reverse is true.

    What I find most interesting is when people who are new to either situation don't want to adapt and respect the majority or group culture. Informing people of email breaks upfront is a wonderful suggestion.