We use mobile phones in meetings now

The notebook and the mobile phone
both are now on top of the table

There has been a change in social convention. It happened in the last 3-6 months where I live and work, perhaps it’s already happened where you are, or perhaps it’s coming. We use mobile phones in meetings now.

We used to ask people to “switch off all mobile phones”. Now we ask them to “switch mobile phones to silent”. There is a big difference. Now people use their devices in meetings: they look, they tap, they respond. They don’t yet overtly photograph or speak, but it’s coming. What’s socially acceptable now would have been considered rude a year ago. Here are some examples:

When my friend comes to visit, she puts her phone on the table next to her breakfast, and openly looks and taps while also eating and chatting to me. Sometimes she brings these “virtual” conversations into our conversation. “Oh!” she tells me, “Richard has just arrived at the house”, or “Oh! Here’s a good picture from Elspeth!” and she hands the phone over so I can see and appreciate the picture. She is 19 and I am over 50. What goes on in her interactions on the phone is of equal, and sometimes greater, importance than what is happening in her interactions with me here in the kitchen. Sometimes the phone is held up, so her distant friends can see our kitchen, our view, or me.

A senior executive in one of the big financial institutions chaired a meeting yesterday. The purpose was to go through some important contingency planning to do with the euro, in some detail. This is a relevant and important topic. Senior representatives of various departments were there in person.He tells me that more or less everyone had their phone on, and visible, during the meeting. “People used to hide the phone, and text under the table” he says, “now they do it on top of the table”. He reckons about a third of the group openly tapped on their phones, texting or emailing, during the meeting. One person was texting and reading while answering a question. The important point about this is that it was socially acceptable. These are investment bankers, some of them, and events are happening quickly.

It is conventional to denigrate such behaviour as rude. But let me reflect on traditional behaviour in meetings. I conventionally turn up to a meeting with an A4 hardback book and a pen. During the meeting I take notes. This is completely acceptable. If the meeting is large, and I am a minor player, my attention may drift. I might consult earlier pages of my notebook and check or modify my To Do list. I might make notes which are rather peripheral to the meeting, such as recording a turn of phrase that interests me, or a mixed metaphor that is a strident example of the genre. I might even make little sketches of the room, or write some notes for a future meeting. All this, because it is done in pen in my book, is indistinguishable from the acceptable practice of note-taking, and is therefore considered OK.

All of us allow our attention to drift slightly in long meetings. The modern use of mobile devices makes this distraction manifest. It’s only visible because the mobile device is separate from the note-taking device. Once people start to take notes on iPad type devices rather than hardback notebooks, we will be back to the invisible distractions of To Do lists, and sketches. The difference is that nowadays the outside world is brought into the meeting, to distract and delight, and perhaps also to participate and contribute, just as my young friend holds up her mobile phone in the kitchen so that her distant uni friend can see my magnificent iced biscuits. So perhaps we should be looking at ways to help that to happen, rather than asking everyone to “turn off all mobile phones”.

Just a thought. And if you are reading this in a meeting, how about sending me a comment…….



Categories: Business Life

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