Whatever You Do, Don’t Look Down

You've spent hours writing your paper, preparing the slides for your presentation, and practicing your talk. You've endured the humiliation of the airport security inspection, the frustration of the weather-related flight delay, the discomfort of the cramped airplane seats, and the disruption of your circadian rhythm after crossing several time zones.

You arrive at the meeting room early, check your slides on the session chair's laptop, get comfortable with the remote, and test the mic. You are excited to be part of this group of experts, and are looking forward to sharing your thoughts and engaging in a lively dialogue.

Now it's your turn to wow the audience. You step to the podium, attach the mic to your lapel, and reveal your first slide. Before starting your talk, you look out at the crowd. You smile and make eye contact with two of the other speakers.

And then it hits you: More people are looking down at their smartphones than are looking up at you. You say, "Good afternoon," and pause, expecting folks to look up. A few do; many do not. What goes through your mind at that moment? How do you feel standing at the front of the room?

Most of us, I think, would agree that it is rude to make or answer a call while in a meeting -- a belief that corresponds with findings of a survey by Peter Cardon of the Univ. of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and Melvin Washington and Ephraim Okoro at Howard Univ., in which 87% of the business professionals questioned said doing so is rarely or never appropriate. Fortunately, participants at AIChE conferences rarely carry on conversations during meetings.

Actions speak louder than words

But what about nonverbal actions? Who among us hasn't sneaked a peek at a screen when (we think) no one is paying attention? More than three-quarters of the respondents to Cardon's survey said it is rarely or never acceptable to perform even quiet tasks -- such as writing and sending texts or emails (84%), checking texts or emails (76%), or browsing the Internet (76%) -- while in a formal meeting. More than half of the respondents said the same goes for activities that many of us think are fairly innocuous: checking the time on a phone (58%), checking incoming calls (56%), bringing a phone to a meeting (56%), and excusing oneself to answer calls (55%).

Cardon and his colleagues found significant differences across various demographic groups. Not surprisingly, younger professionals (aged 21-30) were three times as likely as those over 40 to consider it appropriate to check text messages and emails in either a formal meeting or an informal business lunch setting.

One of the more interesting findings was the major gender gap in perceived appropriateness of mobile phone use. Men were nearly twice as likely as women to consider it appropriate to check text messages, send text messages, and answer calls during meetings. "These survey results seem to indicate that women professionals hold different norms of civility as far as mobile phone use during informal meetings," the researchers conclude. One article reporting on this study advised in its headline: "Business Meeting Etiquette: No Smartphone When There Are Women."

The next time you're in a meeting -- perhaps AIChE's 2014 Spring Meeting and are tempted to take a peek at your smartphone screen, I hope you'll be courteous to the speaker, and resist the urge to look down.

This editorial appeared in the March 2014 issue of CEP magazine. Members can view the entire issue online and can browse and download from the online archives of back issues.