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Thumbs Down to a Lack of Mobile Manners

Can we put the smartphones away, for goodness' sake?

Josh Ellis

Ever wonder how we made it through life before smartphones were invented? How did we serve our business contacts or stay close to our friends and family?

Well, for one, we didn’t have hand-held distraction machines in our pockets all the time. We valued the time we had with those people. We looked them in the eye when we spoke to them, listened to what they had to say—even enjoyed it.

Too often these days, we treat face-to-face interaction with others as simply something we do until the next comment comes in on our Facebook page or our brother calls us back. By focusing our attention on those little glowing rectangles, not only are we missing out on what we should really appreciate—our IRL (in real life, duh!) relationships—we’re being downright rude.

“It’s insulting,” says Judith Bowman, a professional presence consultant and the author of Don't Take the Last Donut: New Rules of Business Etiquette. “People feel slighted, not acknowledged, not important. It’s not conducive to building the trust needed to grow relationships.

“Our smartphones have become an escape for us, like cigarettes are for smokers. You can get away from problems or awkwardness, and go into this different world where you’re comfortable. It’s something people have become dependent upon. However, we can never, ever lose sight of the fact that the most important consideration is spending real time and having real conversations with real people.”

This is particularly difficult for a generation of people who came of age at the same time as the Internet, and take seriously their electronic conversations with real people (who don’t happen to be scowling at them at the moment).

Even though younger generations are generally more accepting of screen-staring, best-selling Gen Y author and SUCCESS contributing editor Jason Dorsey says there are still 20-something CEOs and executives who abhor the practice. Almost uniformly, they’ll dismiss job candidates who sneak a peek at their smartphones during an interview.

Shouldn’t it be obvious not to check your texts while trying to land a job?

“This can be hard for non-digital natives to empathize with,” Dorsey says, “but the reality is many young people—and increasingly more people of all ages—feel that if they’re not looking at a screen, they’re missing out on something. For many it’s become a subconscious habit that they don’t even recognize they have.”

There is also a blunting of priorities when you live with a smartphone in your hand. All of our relationships are important to us, all the time. So we might feel the urge to text our kids right in the middle of a confab at the office. Similarly, we’ll inevitably think of a crucial work detail to email our business partner in the middle of family game night.

However irrational the thought may be, some people do feel that if their text isn’t responded to in a certain amount of time, they’re being cold-shouldered. By replying promptly, we aim to be polite. It’s a problem of competing courtesies: Who gets our attention—the person who texts or someone right in front of us?

The etiquette is clear: Real life trumps e-life. So how do you train friends and family who expect you to respond to them around the clock? “Try letting people know you answer emails and voicemails at specific times during the day,” Dorsey suggests.

Stick to that policy, and these others, to acquire perfect mobile manners.

As with table manners and common courtesy, smartphone etiquette should be taught at home. Don’t spoil a beautiful family dinner by letting teenagers browse Pinterest, or by getting caught up in your own game of Words With Friends.

Just like your elbows, but for a more obvious reason, keep the phone off the business table, too. If your attention is truly on the people you’re with, why allow a distraction to pop up?

Let guests know if you’re expecting an important email or text and set your device to vibrate. When it buzzes, politely say “excuse me” and take care of your business quickly.

Smartphones are great tools that are perfectly useful in business meetings. But at least indicate that you’re Googling the topic at hand for more information, not bored out of your mind.

When you’re leading a long meeting, make sure to schedule breaks. Not everyone will need to use the loo, but watch: All participants will pull out their mobile gadgets to check on outside business.

If there’s mutual consent, tweet your loving hearts out. Long before smartphones, couples sat across the breakfast table and read the newspaper in total silence. Remember the newspaper?

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