From the August 2014 issue of Entrepreneur

May I check my mobile device during a meeting?

No.

But what if I'm expecting an important call?

No. OK, fine … if you're the most important person in the room. Then there won't be any immediate and overt social repercussions from snagging a look-see. No one will ask you to put the phone away or stare at your fingers, trying to mind-meld you to keep you from texting. But you will seem disengaged. And this is obviously insulting to the other people in the room.

But what if--?

No. OK, maybe … if the baby could come at any time. (I've been there.)

Well, can I just set it down in front of me?

That's awful.

Oh, like you've never done that.

Of course I've done it! And I'm ashamed. Lo, am I ashamed. We all should be ashamed.

About 10 years ago, at the advent of text messaging, we began to loosen the rules. We began expanding the landscape of social situations in which we should be able to check our device anytime we want--at a meeting, at a movie, at a bar, at a baptism--and so we do. We decided that the device was our assistant, our agent, our friend, our personal publicist and chronicler. And that it was necessary. And so, the device became an accessory. A crutch. A tool.

But who is the tool here, really?

The Psychology

If you want to understand the way mobile devices affect how we socialize in business, look to a cognitive psychologist. Like, say, Ira Hyman, a Western Washington University cognitive psychologist and professor who studies memory, attention, thinking processes and consciousness.

"Whenever people are in a situation where they're both trying to track a social interaction they're engaged in and track something with their cell phones, they're engaged in a divided-attention task," Hyman says. "What this means is that they'll do both these things more poorly than if they did one of them. There's always a cost for the person engaged in this multitasking. It's going to disrupt their ability to track the conversation and their ability to use their cell phone for other tasks."

In fact, a study by researchers from the University of Essex in the U.K. found that the mere presence of a cell phone in a social situation can distract the participants and disrupt the conversation.

Of course. What's interesting about this is not the psychology--the psychology is obvious. It's the etiquette. But Hyman has something to say about that, too.

The Etiquette

The problem is that we haven't settled on any rules yet. Hyman and his colleague Deborah Kirby Forgays conducted a study published last year in which they asked people of various ages about their views on mobile-device use in social situations. As you might expect, "the youngs" think it's acceptable to use a mobile device in more situations than older people do.

"I don't think either of these is the 'right answer,'" Hyman says, as an objective researcher should. "I don't think our society has actually settled on a set of expectations yet. The stickiness is in the expectation about how quickly people should get back to you. So if you send me a text or an e-mail, how soon am I expected to get back? Your older populations don't necessarily expect constant, immediate responses. Your younger groups expect more immediate responses, both for social situations and, I would imagine, professionally, too."

The younger people are wrong, Ira!

For Hyman, of course, it's not so cut and dried. "It's your social tool, but it's your professional tool as well," he says. "I see people using the cell phone as part of the conversation--to pull out to look things up, check things, share things around the table. They can be incredibly useful tools in these situations. It's just that we're still figuring out the etiquette of it. I don't think it's settled at all. And
I don't think [the older] generation is going to settle it."

That distraction we feel when we know (or even just assume) that someone has tried to reach us but we haven't yet responded--a tweet has not been retweeted, an e-mail has not been answered, a text has not been replied to--is what one of my colleagues at Esquire calls "social panic." (He said this to me over drinks, which is probably why neither of us was panicking enough to check our Twitter.) He's right. We do panic. But what are we panicking about?

I'll be generous to the youngs and say that what we may be doing when we check our phones in a meeting is alleviating one distraction so we can focus on the matter at hand. But what we--youngs and olds united together in an awkward coalition--must do is: not be distracted. This idea that we must immediately respond--even to eliminate a distraction so we can focus better--is shortsighted and immature. And it undermines a fundamental truth about business. And that is: There's nothing more fruitful than being in a room. You gotta get in the room. And once you're in it, the person in the room should be treated as the most important person in the world. All the people around a meeting table? They are your focus. The others can wait. The device can wait.

Checking your phone is vulgar, panicky, needy. Those are not qualities you want to be associated with. You want to be responsible and attentive. Aggressive to be sure, but focused. But not to the people way over there. You owe all of your attention to the people right in front of you. You don't want to miss a word they have to say, and you don't want to miss how they say it. Because what you might be missing is something good for your business. And what your distraction might be telegraphing is: You're not worth doing business with.

Don't check it. Don't have it out on the table in front of you. Don't even think about it. Stop thinking about it. That's better. Once you stop making it available to you, the device is no longer a tool. And neither are you.

Key Technical Matters

  • When attempting to check your device during a business meeting, do not check your device during a business meeting.
  • Those who check their devices may be stared at for longer than is comfortable for either party.
  • No tsking.
  • OK, you can tsk.
  • If you must check your device, excuse yourself, clearly stating, "I must check my device."
  • Saying "Uh-huh … uh-huh … uh-huh" in an indifferent fashion while texting does not suggest engagement in the matter at hand.
  • Laughter at some Instagram pic you just looked at does not suggest engagement in the matter at hand.
  • FaceTiming with Grandma does not suggest engagement in the matter at hand.
  • Don't even put it on the table in front of you.
  • Don't even think about it.
  • Act as if it was never invented.

Can You Check It?

Devices you may consider fiddling with during a meeting, in descending order of appropriateness

  • Whatever device you happen to be meeting about, if your meeting involves a device
  • Speakerphone, if necessary for meeting
  • Wonky stapler
  • Tape dispenser
  • Watch (at the very end of a meeting)
  • Watch (in the middle of a meeting)
  • Hand exerciser
  • Nail clipper
  • Smartphone