Approximately 10 years ago, I remember sharing a taxicab with a colleague and mid-conversation she pulled out her BlackBerry to respond to an email. Even though I knew she needed to respond to an important event at work, I recall thinking how her behaviour was the pinnacle of rudeness.
Fast-forward to today and that pattern not only occurs constantly, I'm likely one of the worst perpetrators. I literally can't resist the buzz of my iPhone and read every email, text and tweet surreptitiously, even when I'm in the middle of a real-life conversation. While I can often pull off two conversations, I occasionally fail miserably. Sometimes, I get so deeply engrossed in my secondary, digital conversation that I can only muster monosyllabic responses in real life before conceding that I haven't heard a thing.
I'm certainly not alone in perpetuating this uncivilized behaviour and it's only getting worse. I often count the number of people engaging in digital conversations while at restaurants with real life people. I once counted eight people at a table, all interacting with their phones. This isn't mere multi-tasking, it's something more complicated and arguably more sinister. We live in a time of multi-communicating, where no one person gets singular attention for very long. It's the institutionalization of rudeness and with the healthy growth of smartphone usage in Canada -- 47 per cent of us own one, up from 34 per cent in 2012 -- it's only going to get worse.
Yet, despite this self-awareness, I have no intention of changing anytime soon. My desire to be available and immediately responsive to a variety of people at the same time is just too great. So what do we do with this knowledge that workplace civility will never be the same?
To find an answer, I turned to my favourite source to give me a pulse on people's perspective: Twitter. One friend said the proper etiquette while multi-communicating is to explain that you need to indulge in a slight technical diversion to anyone in the room, deal with it quickly and then refocus your attention to live company. Another Twitter acquaintance was harsher and said she walks away from a conversation when presented with this behaviour. Academics, too, are torn over the impact of this behaviour in the workplace. Jane Webster, a professor of management information systems at Queen's School of Business, and Ann-Frances Cameron, an associate professor at HEC of Montreal studied the effects of multi-communicating and concluded that on one hand, it leads to a downward spiral of incivility. On the other, it's a necessary behaviour for specific business environments.
"The biggest problem we found (as a result of multi-communicating) is this perception of incivility," explained Ms. Webster. Consistently asking a colleague to repeat things raises suspicion levels that you aren't paying attention, which feels discourteous. That impacts feelings of trust, which can spiral into poor working relationships. Incivility, she added, is considered "low level deviant behaviour," meaning that many will tolerate it, but left unchecked it can spin out of control.
Multi-communicating is a lot more complicated than multitasking because instead of juggling tasks, you are juggling people and it's important to gauge what is acceptable in different corporate cultures and among specific colleagues.
"There are some people who interpret it differently and the ones that like to focus on one task get offended quite quickly. It's important to know how the people you work with like to communicate," she advised. She also found that employees have a lower tolerance for multi-communicating when it comes from a manager, versus a colleague. Being transparent, not hiding the behaviour is the best approach.
Yet, multi-communicating has some benefits, including improving efficiencies in some workplace environments. Ms. Webster uses the example of calling your phone carrier to explain a problem. After waiting on the line for an hour to get a response, a customer would hope that the agent on the line would multi-communicate internally to find a solution.
Multi-communicating also reduces organizational bottlenecks, explained Ms. Cameron. For example, while in a teleconference, texting a co-worker for an update on an issue being discussed carries a benefit.
In other words, we may be institutionalizing rudeness, but increasingly it's the only productive way to work. Time to get past our misgivings about being rude and determine the proper etiquette of managing multiple conversations, on multiple devices all at once. Naturally, some will continue to feel slighted and if I've been the one to offend, please accept my apology via text in advance.