Paging “Miss Manners”

This is what my parents taught me: Look people in the eye. Use a firm handshake.  Respect other people’s time; be generous with your own.  Pay attention when you’re spoken to.  Basic stuff.  “Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten” stuff.

So what is it about technology that has rendered such courtesies obsolete in the business world?

Whether in an internal meeting or with clients and prospects, in the last year or so I’ve marked a substantial increase in the “Distraction Faction.”

What used to be surreptitious glances at the iPhone have become full-on sessions of “I’m checking my email while you are talking … but don’t worry, I’ll look up and nod occasionally to give you the impression that you have my attention.”

I’ve checked with a few colleagues, both in and outside of the PR/Social world, and confirmed that this is happening all over the place.  I knew that “Continuous Partial Attention” was an issue at our own workstations, as individual knowledge workers fluttered between apps and streams and spreadsheets.  But to see businesspeople “pay partial attention — continuously … motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network” while they are presumably in the room in order to interact with other human beings, is just sad.

Yes I am venting and yes I sound like a curmudgeon.  I get that. But when you’ve seen your brilliant colleagues spend weeks on a presentation, only to watch the prospective client NOT watch their performance nor give careful hearing to their ideas, it’s frustrating.  And again, this is not unique to external meetings; it happens within our four walls sometimes, too.  Even I am sometimes guilty of it.  When you desperately need your own peers to help you brainstorm through a tough client challenge, it’s disheartening to see them checking their iPhones versus scratching their noodles.

You don’t need to be a live node on the network. You need to be a live human being with empathy for the efforts and respect for the time of other human beings.  Nodes are commodities.  Businesspeople who exhibit a li’l emotional intelligence are priceless.

Posted on: August 31, 2011 at 8:53 am By Todd Defren
36 Responses to “Paging “Miss Manners””


  • Jessica says:

    This is so true. I get so annoyed when I am trying to have a conversation with someone and they can not even give me the courtesy to put that phone down and maybe pretend they care what I’m saying. This is a problem that this issue is being adopted in the work place. Not only is it rude, it is extremely unprofessional. Do you think we can salvage what little left of manners some people have?

  • Ying says:

    I agree with what you talked about “continuous partial attention” because that just happens on myself! The scene right now when friends and I are waiting for the orders on the dinner table is, everyone take their cell phones or pad out and start playing apps. When people are talking the others are nodding looking at their screens still. It’s not that we don’t want to disrespect the speakers, but we are compulsively indulgent, we’ve been expecting something out there that are interesting. This must be the downside of the technology. We cannot prevent it from developing though, the thing we should do is act more positively, brace the challenges and appeal to people that real human communication is of utmost value for us in the era of information and communication.

  • Lisa says:

    It really seems sometimes that the downside to technology is the technology itself. I feel like I am meeting more and more people that cannot communicate or put a sentence together if it is not in a text message or a Tweet of 140 characters or less. This technology is undoubtedly changing the world and the way we communicate, but is it moving us backward in the manners department? Maybe now we will teach our kids not only the traditional manners we learned, but the polite and proper way to handle our technology as well.

  • elizabeth says:

    Agreed, just because we are inundated with various forms of communication does not mean that we should forgo basic manners and respect for others. Simply because we have the option to refresh e-mail inboxes, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds does not mean we have to check them incessantly, especially when in a setting where others are present.

  • sami says:

    This is so true and has definitely seen an increase in the last year or so. As a graduate student, I work a bar job to pay my way through and too often catch myself checking my phone right infront of customers. The interesting thing is, the bosses don’t even notice. If they notice, they don’t mind. I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for a few years and can remember in the not too distant past when cell phone usage was grounds for serious punishment (often job loss). What makes this phenomenon worse is the increasing necessity for immediate feedback. It is pretty safe to say that almost everyone in the business world has a smartphone and therefor is constantly connected. This knowledge often creates a feeling of urgency in returning emails, texts or at the very least acknowledging a missed phone call. The fear of repercussions from the boss has lead to a blatant disconcern for anyone else that doesn’t have an intimate investment in your career. I think this is an awful habit and it’s something that needs to be discussed in any employees training. Every person should be treated and respected as a potential client!

  • Caroline says:

    This is so true. As a student I see professors struggling with this all the time. One of my professors makes us turn off our phones and place them face down on our desks infront of us, if we pick them up at all during the lecture we are required to write a 10 page paper. We can’t handle being disconnected from the world for even a half hour, doesn’t even matter if we are with our closest friends we will still need to check Facebook or Twitter. Its like an addiction.

  • Yang says:

    Agree! The first important thing when you communicate with others is to show enough respect to your conversational partners. You should use your nonverbal behavior to tell him/her that you are paying attention to his/her speaking. If you want get respect from others when you speak or show a presentation, you should respect other’s work first.

  • Maybe I AM an old curmudgeon (just got my MBTA Senior Citizen pass…very cool!!), but it drives me totally up a wall when I’m talking with someone, either in a formal setting or informal, and he or she parks the phone within eyeshot to make sure no earth-shattering IM doesn’t get missed.

    When I’m chatting with someone, I do something considered really creepy these days…that person gets my 100% attention, with my eyes focused on him or her and NOT my phone/the floor/all the passers-by.

    Civility is taking a major nosedive in both business and casual settings. Thanks, Todd, for assuring me I’m not the only one who is offended!

  • Tonia Ries says:

    To the presenters in the group: go back and re-read @SteveCoulson’s comment. It’s your job to get their attention. If that means you wear a chicken suit to make them look at you, use bright colors, ask them questions, and make them talk, then that’s what you do. To the audience: if the conversation in the meeting isn’t important enough to warrant your attention, then why did you agree to the meeting to begin with?

    To both: truth is, most meetings I’ve been to (a lot) could have accomplished everything in half the time allotted. I’d suggest scheduling 20-minute meetings. You’ll get more focus from both presenter and audience if they know they’ll be outta there in only 20 minutes.

    That’s all from me, I have to go check my Blackberry now.

  • Patty barry says:

    Agree, rant or not: great post! The desire to be a “live node” sacrifices the possibility of making real, human connections that are right in front of us. For PR and marketing folks who talk about enhancing brand loyalty by making companies’ social presence more authentic/human – it sure would be nice if we all worked to make our actual presence more authentic too.

  • As a fellow etiquette afficionado, I totally agree with you. It’s easy to ban cellphone checking in internal meetings but really tough to do when you’re with a client. We did a pitch once to an existing client. There were 10 brand people in the room and while we were up there presenting, half of them were tapping away on laptops. Occasionally, one of them would show another one something on the screen and they would both start giggling. We received negative feedback on the presentation and were told that it wasn’t detailed enough. When we asked them to be more specific, it became obvious that all the details they needed were in the PPT but they hadn’t been listening.

  • Kevin Briody says:

    This sort of behavior isn’t something new ushered in with the advent of the smartphone – it’s as least as old as wireless access. In the comments above Jen asked “What did we do 10 years ago? Try and remember, and do that.” Well 10 years ago I recall sitting in meetings at a very large tech company, my employer at the time, and constantly having the battle play out of presenters asking (or demanding) for a meeting rule of “laptops down!” The presenters, unless they were executives who could pull rank, usually lost that battle.

    Laptops have simply given way to 3G-enabled smartphones, but the issue the the same.

    Not to excuse this behavior, which I find annoying as hell, but unfortunately I think it’s become the new norm in a society where the expectation exists that you are always on, always available, and where (especially in social and modern PR) a lack of response that stretches beyond a few minutes (or an hour) could mean disaster. It’s one of the downsides of the technology we’ve all championed over the years.

    Everyone complains about it, yet it’s becoming more and more pervasive and I don’t see any realistic path to make it go away as a societal trend (you can certainly ban phone-checking in your team meetings of course – I’m talking about the meetings you don’t control). Aggravating as the behavior is, and sad as the following statement might be, I think we’ll all just need to adapt to it vs spending our time tilting at windmills.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Equating “basic courtesy” to “tilting at windmills” is a sad commentary, eh, Kevin? You are probably right but this behavior has a coarsening effect across the board, doesn’t it?

      • Kevin Briody says:

        Hey Todd,
        By that comment I meant to suggest that with the trend so overwhelmingly common – look at this thread, it’s now pretty much “normal” behavior at almost any conference, event, meeting, etc. – it might be a futile battle attempting to change it back (cue the “tilting” comment). No matter how much we all might rail against it, and lecture people on basic courtesy, I simply don’t see the trend reversing and people putting away their phones, iPads, laptops, etc.

        I agree with your sentiments 100%, for the record – it’s horrible and depressing to work like crazy on a presentation and then see 80% of the room buried in email, Facebook, whatever. I just think the new behavior has become so ingrained we’ll see *more* of this rather than less, and we can either rant against it or figure out how to live with it, or even take advantage of it. This same argument has been happening for at least a decade now, and despite all the protests it’s now far more common behavior than ever.

  • sHAWN MORTON says:

    While I get the general courtesy factor in “being present” in any meeting, I’m not sure I would assume someone’s lack of attention is lack of manners or desire to be always-on. Perhaps, your presentation just isn’t that interesting.

    Having worked exclusively on the brand side, I have been subject to many (many!) agency presentations that are a gigantic waste of everyone’s time. A lot of people probably worked very hard to make those lackluster decks, but I’m not sure that it makes someone rude if they aren’t engaged. Why is the presenter’s time more valuable than anyone else’s in the room?

    I would rather see people use the Law of Two Feet and leave a meeting that they find no value in rather than tweet through it.

    I think blaming technology or lack of manners doesn’t really get to the core issue. If you expect the attendees of your meeting to pay attention, you need to make sure that you are adding value with your content.

  • CM Williams says:

    Taking a page from my college teaching days, I build into my presentations opportunities for interaction. Nothing wakes the group up more than asking someone’s opinion when they’re engrossed in a text conversation with someone outside the meeting …

    • Lucretia says:

      Yep. This.
      Maybe it’s a habit one acquires as a teacher – but I always go for the guy who hasn’t looked up from his twitterstream or email in 5 minutes. Old habits die hard I guess, because it tends to make them avoid the behavior for a bit.
      Thing is? Like teaching – you need to know when to go off-script because your audience isn’t with you. If something on their twitterstream is more interesting – figure out why and what to do about it.

    • This is a great idea! Will definitely use. I think it also falls in line with expectations that more and more experiences will have some degree of interactivity. We as speakers need to adjust our offerings and cut down on the monologue. More personal conversations should also integrate the audience more to keep them focused.

  • Erica says:

    Several years ago I started the practice of leaving my hand held back at my desk for meetings (both in agency and when I was a client) UNLESS in the middle of an issue or crisis. There is nothing that can’t wait for an hour. And yes if you’re in a pitch it’s rude all around both sides! We’re an instant gratification society!

  • I see this happening a lot internally as well. High-level employees meet with their underlings and take Blackberry breaks throughout the conversation. People at all levels of the organization still deserve common respect. As an executive, you may think your digital check-outs are keeping the company afloat, but you’re really taking shots at the hull when you disrespect your employees.

    • Todd Defren says:

      As an executive, you may think your digital check-outs are keeping the company afloat, but you’re really taking shots at the hull when you disrespect your employees.

      Damn, sir, well said.

  • Jen Zingsheim says:

    I *despise* this trend. It is the height of rudeness, what one is saying, explicitly, when one checks the phone whilst talking to another person is “you don’t matter as much as what this electronic device might deliver to me.”

    It seriously makes me bonkers. I’ve noticed an almost Pavlovian response when these devices “ding” around some people, they cannot stand not knowing what has just come in. I solve this by turning off the sound notification and putting the phone in my purse.

    A company that staffs a meeting behaving in the manner Peter Kim has outlined above is astonishing–they don’t deserve to have his wise counsel.

    What did we do 10 years ago? Try and remember, and do that.

    One final note: I have a personal friend whose entire job revolves around international sales. If there is anyone for whom I would provide latitude on the cell-phone-checking nonsense, it’s her. And yet, she manages to behave better than many people I know whose livelihoods do not depend on round-the-clock connection. Being polite and staying connected is possible, but it takes restraining that urge to be constantly updated.

    Right there with you. Great post and good reminder.


  • This is really pervasive, and when it happens in a pitch situation, to me it’s a good sign of whether or not we even want to work with the team.

    But I’m not sure I agree that all the blame falls on the audience and its .

    I’ve often thought about working up a seminar on some techniques I learnt when I worked as a tablehopping magician during my college years (I know, crazy right?) The art of the magician is in large part about misdirection – getting the audience to look at one hand while you do the “business” with the other, and that relies totally on having your audiences complete attention. Watch the best close up magicians in the world, and you’ll see audiences that are just rapt with attention, and at the same time, you’ll notice those very same magicians are MASTER storytellers.

    Which should really impact the way we present in business situations. If our powerpoints starts with slides that say “objectives”, “audience”, strategy” and ends with “measuring results” and “next steps”, to quote a phrase, “uR doing it wrong”. Thing about every presentation, no matter how serious, as a stage performance, and it’ll really pay dividends in people putting down their phones.

    That’s not to say that the issue of pervasive inattention is not widespread and a tough ones, but while “put all your cellphones in a basket” is one way to FORCE attention, the other way is to earn it with dramatic, entertaining presentations, that are not just “slides” but are a performance. Thinking of myself as a performer, rather than a presenter, and how to put on a show for my audience, really helped amp up my business presentations.

    • Todd Defren says:

      It should always be the goal to enrapture an audience with our storytelling prowess; your point is a good one. But even good storytellers need a receptive audience at some level. It’s one thing to LOSE an audience because you’re not compelling; quite another to have never had a chance to gain their attention in the first place, eh?

  • This exact thing happened to me yesterday, so I’m in complete agreement. I get getting bored at meetings – I INVENTED getting bored at meetings, but during a presentation, pay attention or heckle me – one of the two. I’d rather be pelted with tomatoes than ignored.

  • sonny Gill says:

    Why do you have to call out just iPhones, huh?! ;)

    Definitely agree with your points but playing slight devil’s advocate, can’t the same be said for all the conferences that we attend? I know it’s an argument that has been brought up before and there are people on both sides of the fence on this one but those presenters have worked just as hard to give the audience something of value too. Sure, the audience may be tweeting out snippets of their talk but there’s still some partial attention business happening there too.

    Just a thought but good discussion to be had all around!

    • Todd Defren says:

      I see where you are coming from but most conferences are all-day affairs and one can’t reasonably expect the audience to remain rapt in every session. Also, some of the “good stuff” at conferences happen in the backchannels online. So, I’m OK with that I guess. But in a room with 5-10 people? During a presentation? Rude.

  • LISA says:

    Oh, I could not agree more. This has grown to be my biggest pet peeve, to the point that I have considered confiscating all phones at the beginning of a meeting, with the promise that a 2 minute phone check will be offered every 30 minutes. You’re not a curmudgeon – you are just plain correct, sir.

  • Peter Kim says:

    I was involved in a pitch one time to a similar audience. It was clear they were disinterested – almost everyone had laptops open and most were checking mobile devices the entire time. My colleague sat next to a person who was managing the company’s Facebook wall while we presented. I’m not sure why they didn’t cancel our trip even the night before, which would’ve been more respectful than having us present in their theater of the absurd.

    This brand happens to be nowhere near on par with their competition in the social business space. From the professionalism of their marketing decision makers, now I know why.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I think I can guess which meeting you were in, @Peter. ;)

      Even if I am right – (since we had a similar experience) – the sad thing is, that wasn’t even the pitch that got my goat! This happens ALL.THE.TIME.

  • Christina Feeney says:

    Couldn’t agree more – what happened to respect? Patience? Courtesy? It blows my mind to see this behavior in the workplace (and unfortunately, is easy to fall into when ‘everyone’ is doing it). Collaboration and innovation just cannot be fostered in an environment where people are too focused on themselves (and their devices) to listen to others. There’s a reason we’re not supposed to text and drive at the same time…we’re not paying attention.

  • Hugh Briss says:

    This curmudgeon is right there with you. When I’m having lunch with someone my cell phone stays in my pocket on vibrate. The only way I would take the time to quickly check who’s calling is if I was expecting an important phone call, otherwise it goes to voice mail and I call them back after.

  • Parry says:

    This. The emotional intelligence piece resonates with me, big time. It boils down to this: do YOU appreciate it when people around the table fawn over their cell phones while YOU are speaking/presenting?

    No? You don’t like that? Then why in hell aren’t you emotionally intelligent enough to return the same level of attention and respect you expect of others?

    Look, I’m as digitally connected as the next guy, but I’m all in favor of a “Cell Phone Cessation Mandate” during meetings. Exceptions: your wife is expecting a baby imminently, or you’ve committed to being somebody’s phone-a-friend lifeline on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

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