Linked up, but out of the loop: Don’t forget courtesy in rush to stay connected

By Jennifer Lloyd, The Seattle Times – 12/07/2007 – 12:00am


We love our mobile devices for the services they provide — e-mail, phone, Internet browsing, text messaging, calendars, camera functions, games. The reassuring glow of keypads and displays signal that we are connected, not alone. That we are needed.

But when is it time to disconnect?

“BlackBerrys are the best thing since sliced bread, but they should be checked in private,” says Ann Marie Sabath, author of “Business Etiquette: 101 Ways to Conduct Business with Charm and Savvy” (Career Press, $12.99).

“They should not be brought into meetings.”

BlackBerrys combine cellphones, laptop computers and personal data assistants (PDAs) into one. They keep busy people available to clients, families and emergencies.

Similar devices such as the Treo 600 smart phone and the Motorola MPx200 are convenient also because they offer so much in a gizmo sized to fit in your business-casual pocket. Yet staying linked up can waste time and the patience of your co-workers or clients.

“It’s hard to present something, truthfully, when you can’t make eye contact with anyone in the meeting room,” said Catherine Wolfe, director of program management for Seattle-based GiftCertificates.com. “It’s more fruitful to put the toys down and pay attention to what’s going on. It saves you time in the long run.”

Wolfe is part of a team of managers at GiftCertificates.com that has brainstormed a way to keep gadgetry at a minimum during meetings. Their policy allows the originator of the gathering to decide whether devices will be allowed.

Unlike the informal approach at GiftCertificates.com, lawyers from Dorsey & Whitney LLP’s Seattle branch will soon have a written policy to address gadget courtesy.

Two years ago managing partner Joseph Gaffney began noticing disruptions because of cellphones. He believes the introduction of BlackBerrys has exacerbated problems more recently.

Within the next three months, the law firm will provide a BlackBerry for each of its lawyers. A policy regulating their use will come along with them, Gaffney said. It will emphasize polite use of technology that reflects the best interest of the client:

The lawyers may answer e-mail during meetings when beneficial to the client. They may answer client phone calls provided their phones are set to vibrate and they leave the meeting to converse.

The consequences for breaking the gadget rules won’t be dire, but Gaffney predicts the policies will be reinforced through peer pressure.

“It will be more like family values than penalties enforced by the state patrol,” Gaffney said.

Joe Fabris, palmOne’s director of wireless marketing, said the Treo 600 smart phone includes features to make the device more meeting friendly.

“You can silence it with a simple switch,” said Fabris. “You can choose to answer the call or tap a button to send it to voicemail after one tiny vibrate.”

He cited instances when a device was helpful during meetings, such as silently correcting a misstatement made by a presenter. The messaging system helped them avoid any embarrassment.

Other smart phone users said their gadgets help them respond quickly during long-distance negotiations.

Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert and author of “The Jerk with the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us,” to be released this fall, believes in gadget guidelines.

“Unless you’re a heart surgeon and you’re waiting for a heart to arrive, there’s no reason to put it on ring,” advises Pachter about bringing phones into meetings, dinners and other places. “You can put in on vibrate.”

If it’s an important call, Pachter advises excusing yourself from the room before answering.

Does gadget usage ever border on addiction? (“The street name is CrackBerry,” said Neil Strother, a senior analyst for In-Stat/MDR, a research company that tracks the sales and usage of BlackBerrys.)

Thus far, according to an expert at UW, non-substance-based research has dealt with Internet and video-game addictions. But mobile-electronics users may become anxious without a constant connection, said Alan Marlatt, director of the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center.

“There is an increasing dependency on cellphones and being able to be reached at almost any time around the clock,” he said. “This can be a psychological dependency, so if the person loses their cellphone or their battery goes dead, this person may become upset, anxious or disturbed, just like somebody who ran out of cigarettes.”

“We’re not saying using them is harmful in itself, it just matters how much you’re depending on it,” said Marlatt.

Many of these questions will have to work themselves out over time, and the rules may vary depending on the circumstances and the attitudes of employers.

“Etiquette really isn’t in place,” said Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival and author of “Business Etiquette For Dummies” (Wiley, $21.99)

“Technology came so fast that rules were not set.”

Jennifer Lloyd: 206-464-2113 or jlloyd@seattletimes.com

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