Social Netiquette: Is It OK to Use a Phone in Meetings?

When to Give Into the Temptation

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
Dear Groundswell: Is it OK to use mobile devices in a meeting?

As I continue my Social Netiquette investigations this question comes up over and over again. No less than the New York Times weighed in, but not in any definitive way.

There are countless netiquette sources that say it's rude to take a mobile phone call in a meeting, and you should turn your phone off. But this advice dates to when phones were used to make calls. Now you could be checking e-mail or sports scores, or you could be checking something relevant to the meeting on the web or taking notes.

I expect this question to generate a lot of divergent opinions, so let me state the obvious -- I know my answer, but I would like to hear yours.

Let's start with four fundamental rules of social netiquette:

  1. The golden rule. If the roles were reversed, would you be happy? If not, don't do it. (Remember this from kindergarten?)
  2. Don't deceive and don't lie. If you get caught, you'll be sorry, since you're destroying trust. This is rarely worth it.
  3. Balance your own needs with those of others. You are important, but not the most important. If your boss needs your help -- or your staff does -- how will you balance those needs with yours?
  4. Your habits are your own problem. If you have a drinking problem, that doesn't mean you can whip out a bottle in the meeting (unless it's on 'Mad Men'). Same with your compulsive need to check email. If you can't stop, get counseling.

Having internalized these, which of course you all agree with, let's look at the problem at hand. Continuous partial attention is a systemic problem that causes us all challenges, but it needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis since I don't believe a single solution works for all meetings.

  • If you are having a one-on-one meeting with anyone, then don't use the mobile device. You need something from each other, so concentrate on each other's needs. Better to get 15 minutes of full attention. Using a mobile phone in such a meeting sends the message "you are not important." (This sounds silly, but I have experienced it and it sucks.)
  • In any small meeting where you are reasonably expected to participate, it pays to ask permission. For example, "I'm going to look that up on the web" or "I am checking the agenda" or "I am making a note." You could also say something at the start of the meeting ("I'll be using this to check the Websites we're discussing"). If you would feel embarrassed saying "I am going to check my email while you talk" then don't do it. (See Rules 1 to 4.)
  • In a larger meeting, people may not require your full attention (for example, the sync-up meeting with 12 people in it, during the part where they are talking about the stuff that doesn't apply to you). I don't have a problem with mobile devices used in this way.
  • The person running the meeting has the right to say "please put your mobile devices down, what I have to say now is important." It is useful to follow this with an announcement that is actually important, like "I have just laid off half the staff" or "We are reorganizing and you are about to get a new boss," as opposed to "We are about to get new carpeting."
  • People running meetings have a responsibility to have fewer of them and make them shorter. Count up the hourly compensation of the people in the meeting and the time they are spending. Is it worth that much? Is there another way to accomplish the goal? By Rule 1, if you have fewer meetings, perhaps you can get more attention during those meetings.
  • Don't Twitter during a meeting unless it is a public meeting. Most people have an expectation that the contents of a meeting are confidential. For example, tweets that say "My boss is so boring," "Disney just offered to buy our company for $150 million," and "My company is going to announce a new product next week" will all get you in trouble, even if true.

OK, folks, let fly. I'm interested in where you land on this. And if you say "I do it, too, but others should not" then please start your comment with "I am a hypocrite."

[Side note: As I described the state in which you cannot concentrate on one thing since your attention is continuously drawn to other things, my wife Kimberley said "There is a name for that. It is called 'motherhood."]

Josh Bernoff is co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at
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