Cellphone Chaos vs Cellphone Etiquette

I think it’s time to admit we’re not handling it well – our relationship with our cellphones. The usefulness of this technology is often overshadowed by human obsessiveness and this not only harms relationships it’s putting some of us at risk.

I’ll start with my walk to a gathering on Friday morning. Because I was at an unfamiliar intersection at rush hour (which in Halifax, because of the transit strike, is now the rush 3 hours) I was paying very careful attention to each driver. My curiosity was peaked by a young woman (in her late 20’s or early 30’s) who drove through the intersection (fortunately she had the green light) while smiling with delight and looking down at the seat beside her. Not one bit of her attention was focused on driving or the road.

At first I thought there was a child beside her, but her gaze and expression were more static, not interactive, and she was looking straight down, not across and down. Just as she passed me I saw what had her full attention – her cellphone – she was reading a text on her cellphone. It must have been a wonderful message because her expression was definitely one of joy and happiness – the kind of expression we get when we are extremely excited about something. Perhaps her Friday night was going to be awesome. But even as she drove past me, moving down the street towards her job, she did not look up or around at the vehicles and pedestrians close by. 

Now I do understand – and fully appreciate – excitement. Perhaps she had been stuck in traffic moments before I saw her and just couldn’t resist checking her messages. Then traffic started to move and there she was, fully engaged with her cellphone. 

This, as we all know, is dangerous, very dangerous. The studies have been done, continue to be done, that prove that texting and driving don’t mix. And it is so obvious really. Would we read a magazine or newspaper while we drive? 

And it isn’t that it’s dangerous for only the driver of the vehicle, it’s dangerous for people around them. I had the misfortune last year of being nearby when a driver struck a pedestrian on Alderney Drive. The cry of anguish and horror that came from that driver when he stepped out of his car still rings in my ears. No one wants to have that experience. 

So … we’ve got to stop obsessing about the messages on our cellphone. Surely they can wait the 10 or 15 or 20 minutes until we have stopped driving! 

On a much less dangerous note is the whole cellphone in a meeting thing. 

A caveat here: I’ve been planning this blog for a long time, so if you’ve been in a meeting with me recently and your cellphone rang, please don’t think you and you alone have been my inspiration.

We are creating unnecessary discomfort, stress and distraction with our cellphones, and it’s time to agree to change. 

When I dig back in my memory – which makes me feel like an antique but I keep doing it because I have found some wisdom there – I can visualize the cellphone-less meetings, workshops, events. Customers weren’t any less important then, we simply handled it differently. 

What often happened was, just before the introductions or the first item on the agenda someone might say “I’ve got an important client that I may need to speak to during this meeting. I’ve given them the number here and if they call, I’m going to have to take it.”  

Everyone around the table would nod – “Fair enough”, they’d be thinking. “Thanks for letting us know about the possible interruption.” And they’d go on with the meeting. The interruption, if and when it came, would actually be absorbed into the meeting with minimal impact because it was expected, because everyone had agreed it was important.

At an event, an usher might appear with a flashlight looking for the person who’s important call was awaiting them in the manager’s office, and while this distracted those in the immediate vicinity, it didn’t distract those on stage – or on the other side of the auditorium. 

While within individual companies there may indeed be cellphone guidelines, other types of meetings seem to suffer from a haphazard approach. Often it’s when the first cellphone rings that everyone else remembers to turn their phones off or down. Many people sit with their cellphones on the table in front of them, eyeing them for activity. And still others simply stand up suddenly and disappear around a corner or down a hallway to have, what we all assume is, an urgent conversation. 

These interactions with cellphones are interruptions to the flow of every gathering. If someone is speaking, they often lose their train of thought, and the group spends a few moments catching up with themselves before they are able to move forward with their discussion. 

Interacting with our cellphone at a meeting or function, tells everyone else present that the message or text is more important and more interesting. Whether we want to admit it or not, when we are gathered with others and put our cellphone first someone is annoyed or offended – every time. You can only hope they were not a prospective client or partner! 

What’s the solution? Well, first of all, I’d like to hear from you. How is it been handled at meetings and events you attend? What guidelines do you set for yourself? 

I’ve come to believe that we are all responsible for “cellphone chaos” and need to be responsible for “cellphone etiquette”. I don’t think it’s only up to a meeting’s chair to set the tone. I think it’s up to all of us. 

For example, any one can say, “Hey everyone, I’m just turning off my phone, in case you need a reminder.” or “This meeting will stay on schedule if we don’t get distracted. Why don’t we put our cellphones away for the next 30 minutes or so.”  

And we can take a lesson from the olden days … if we do have an urgent call we must take, perhaps we can let everyone know before the meetings starts. 

Truly, it’s time, time we controlled our cellphones, instead of letting them control us. 


One last thought:  

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” — John Wooden

0 thoughts on “Cellphone Chaos vs Cellphone Etiquette”

  1. Hi Mary Jane,

    Thanks for the link to your blog. It was great. Very well said and engaging. I know several people that need to read your blog and I will be sending on the link. I believe most of us can recall at least a few similar examples of cell phone chaos… very scary.. hope people get the message before they hurt someone…

  2. First, I completely adore John Wooden 🙂

    Cellphones … I got my first (well, thus far my only) cellphone less than two years ago. This is when I officially started my new business and it had nothing to do with wanting to take phone calls; I really wanted it so I could check my emails when I was nowhere near my computer. The problem I encountered was, folks knew I had a cellphone, and so, well, they called me. And expected an immediate response. I had to change my voice mail to indicate I was not available BUT that I would respond in less than 24 hours (and I do). I also signed up for voice-mail-to-text so I could read messages, if need be, quietly. That’s because I don’t agree with taking calls during a meeting, over a meal or even on a bus (well, when there is a bus to take). It’s actually been established that THE most distracting noise is not music, construction, or babies crying; it’s having to listen to a one-sided conversation. You cannot NOT hear what the person is saying; therefore, while you’re missing out on what’s being said at the meeting you’ve taken the time to attend, so are all the other attendees at that meeting. And actually, getting up in the middle of a meeting to take a call, even OUT of earshot, is still distracting to everyone else in the room (oh and don’t forget, you still have to come back AFTER the phone call!). I think the message sent to anyone with whom you’re meeting, or joining FOR a meeting, is that, by not letting your cellphone ‘take a message,’ you’re telling everyone that there is always something else more important than them.

  3. Another great piece to contemplate Mary Jane – thank you! I think everyone who interrupts a meeting OR a conversation to take a phone call should reflect on how they feel at a store, when in the middle of paying for something, the clerk at the counter takes a phone call, and deals with the new customer on the phone rather than with the person at the counter – thus interrupting the transaction. No different than queue jumping. It is up to all of us to use our phones (and accesories like recorded messages and text-to-e-mail) with courtesy and effectiveness. Your piece reminds me of an old quote, something like “I choose to lead my life, and not be led.” At least Pavlov’s dogs received food after the bell rang.

  4. Simply put – it’s rude!!! It’s rude, unfocused and unproductive. Have we really all become that self important that EVERY bit of communication is that important that we disrupt and disrespect those around us. I would suggest that if you have to jump to attention and respond immediately to each telephone call and email that there is something missing in the relationships that you have with your clients, colleagues and suppliers.

    When working with a client the only calls or emails that interrupt us are the ones that we want to interrupt us, that we make exceptions for, as Mary Jane mentioned…and If I’m meeting with someone and the phone/email seems to be their priority I suggest that we book another time to meet, one where they can have more focus.

    Multi-tasking is a myth folks – just ask Dave Crenshaw, the author of “The Myth of Multi-tasking”…or better yet, take the multi-tasking test on his website

    Another great article at http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2011/04/26/the-myth-of-multitasking/

  5. It took decades and laws having to be passed before smokers would respect the rights and the health of others. The similarity between needing a smoke and conpulsively needing to check our e-mail and text messages at the expense of others is errily familiar.

    In my presentations I do not pussy-foot around the issue. I make this announcement at the beginning of each of my presentations. With rare exceptions it works.

    (That we would risk our own lives and the lives of others by texting in our cars puts this simple, courteous request into logical context.)

    “We all know how discourteous ringing cell phones and people reading and sending texts messages and emails can be during meetings and presentations. Please respect everyone in the room this morning by refraining from reading or sending texts, email, and receiving telephone calls. We have a cell phone/coffee break coming up in just 90 minutes. Thank you for respecting everyone this morning and enjoy the presentation.”

  6. Hello Mary Jane,

    Great Article, yes cell phones at any meeting whether it is business or even a coffee with a friend is a pet peeve of mind. I have a friend when meeting for coffee or just hanging out has to have her cell phone handy and if it rings will answer it, or if it’s a text, must read and respond. It leaves me sitting there, wondering why we are even having coffee together if she is spending her time with whomever is on the cell. I did talk to her about it, a few times, and the response I got back was I was trying to control her. That just made me angry, because what I was trying to tell her is that I wanted to enjoy her company, and felt ignored. She has gotten a little better since then, and now she’ll warn me first that she is expecting a call from her kids or partner. So I feel she may have heard me somewhat after-all.

    Keep up the good work, i enjoy reading your blogs!


  7. I’m been vigorously avoiding having a cell phone now for several years. Mostly I’ve been avoiding the interruption it would bring to everything I do when I’m not sitting at my desk. And really, there’s nothing useful I can do for my clients if I’m not at my desk. I do recognize that not every business owner has the luxury of operating that way. BUT I also believe it has to do with the expectations that we allow others to dictate, rather than setting those expectations ourselves.


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