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Etiquette's electronic frontier

Cellphones, iPods, PDAs, and other devices may raise productivity, but they also can raise the ire of coworkers.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2006

As a publicist in New York, Drew Tybus knows the importance of keeping in touch with business contacts. But that need to connect reached an extreme this month when he attended a luncheon for 60 publicists. Scanning the room during a panel discussion, he made a startling observation: "Nobody was looking at this guy when he was talking," Mr. Tybus says. "People were typing away on their BlackBerrys. Others were using the stylus for their Palm Pilots. They were sending e-mails about work at the same time that they were trying to get more information from the people who were speaking."

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Some might call this multitasking. Others regard it as just plain rude. Either way, it's a sign of the electronic times, raising questions about workplace behavior in a wired world. From iPods to hand-held devices, cellphones, and e-mail, "tech-etiquette" remains an unresolved issue for many bosses and workers.

"Each of these things is both a blessing and a detriment," says Elizabeth Scofield, who teaches classes in etiquette to businesses and students in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's a question of perspective."

From the perspective of executives polled by Robert Half Technology, challenges exist. Two-thirds say that breaches in tech-etiquette are increasing. Nearly 90 percent think it is inappropriate to leave a cellphone ringer on during a business meeting, while 80 percent say sending instant messages or e-mail in meetings is a definite "don't." Two-thirds consider it poor etiquette to use personal computers during these sessions.

Perhaps the biggest etiquette offenders, hand-held devices allow users to check e-mail, search the Web, send text messages, and make phone calls. These gadgets "are causing normally polite people to commit egregious breaches of decorum," says Peter Handal, chairman of Dale Carnegie Training. "At meetings, people tend to get really annoyed by the use of BlackBerrys. I often see other people rolling their eyes."

E-mail and instant messages can also produce etiquette blunders. Without the subtle clues of the spoken word, such as vocal tone and body language, they can be misinterpreted, creating misunderstandings and even inadvertent insults.

"People tend to treat e-mail like conversation," Mr. Handal says. "They don't give it the kind of thought that something in writing should have. If you're trying to be funny and you forget to put in the little smiley face, people could take it the wrong way."

Executives at Robert Half Technology suggest saving sensitive topics for face-to-face meetings, when others can be sure of your intended meaning. They caution against using high-tech shorthand in e-mail and instant messages, such as BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion). Only use these if you are sure every recipient understands them. Take photos on a camera phone only if there is a business need and colleagues have given permission.

For many workers, an iPod, loaded with favorite music, is a welcome way to block out distractions. But to a boss trying to get an employee's attention, those white ear buds can represent a barrier.

"Sometimes they don't hear their telephones ringing," says Lee Rosen, president of Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C. "That can be a problem. But all in all, the music adds to their ability to be productive far more than it detracts from it." Because his employees work in cubicles in an open room, many use iPods or play music through their computer to create an isolated environment. He takes the approach that they should do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Ms. Scofield, director of the performing arts center at Lehigh University, also defends the use of iPods, saying, "It may look unprofessional, but there are many things people do that are unprofessional. I don't think iPods are annoyances. It's not like walking around with a giant boom box."