Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We’re All Here Today to… (hold on, got a text coming in)

We’ve got a growing problem in America with technology mishandling.  But do we even know it?  The problem is seen in use of technology, but technology isn’t the problem.  Like many “tools” the technology is being blamed for what is really a people problem.

The value we place on our relationships, the ones that we have nurtured and benefited from for years, is being diminished rapidly as we find greater value in our connectedness to others through constant on-demand exchanges with people or organizations not within our presence.  Here’s an illustration to explain…

Say you go to a networking event, like a reception or cocktail party or a business luncheon, and the person you are talking to is clearly passing time with you while constantly looking over your shoulder for someone “more important” to interact with.  Believe me, it happens to everyone.  Most people talk about this afterward in a very revealing light to their friends.  “Ya, he shook my hand and chatted a bit, but he was scanning the room for someone else to talk to the whole time.”  Or, in a personal setting, “The whole time we were at lunch, she was looking around the restaurant to see if someone ‘important’ had come in.”  How does that make us feel? 

Almost overwhelmingly, it makes us feel lousy.  It affects not only our self-worth and self-esteem, but perhaps more importantly, it also defines relationships.  The power structure (or “pecking order” as it were) is delineated by the perceived value placed on relationships, whether intentional or not.  It can also anger us if we interpret the behavior of the other as a signal that he/she has incorrectly assumed a greater power role in the relationship that we believe exists.  In layman’s terms, this is the “who does he think he is?!” response. 

Now, how different is it really to be in the middle of a real life exchange with another human and have them pull out their gadget and begin texting or emailing someone else who didn’t bother to show up?  What a glance away over your shoulder can do to your psyche is dramatically multiplied as 10 seconds or more ticks away awkwardly while the person you are taking the time to meet with abruptly enters another “meeting.”  In that mere 10 seconds, you have time to process the rudeness, assign meaning to it in terms of your relationship with this person, and very likely place judgment on the person standing before you.  Little by little, your relationship with this person is eroded.  It is a very powerful non-verbal statement.

And, before you defend this behavior by saying, “Everyone does it these days, so it is just accepted,” remember this…  It is a normal human condition to fail to accept this excuse for ill treatment.  Even if we do it ourselves, we don’t justify it in others.  We may have come to accept it, but there is still and assignment of judgment and erosion of the relationship as we realize that the person we are with has just moved us down the pecking order in terms of value. 

Here is a way technology could really help with this very human problem… I’d love to see a feature on my Blackberry that allows me to turn on an auto-responder text and email that says something like, “I’m presently in a meeting.  I will get back to you at my earliest convenience.”  By getting this quick response, in all hopes the text friend will hear, “I’m presently with a valued human being who has gone to the trouble to be with me in person.  I value you, too, which is why I turned on this auto-responder.  I will get back to you when my time with this person is through.”

A way we could all do better in the meantime is to agree, together, to put our devices away for the duration of the exchange.  Make a quick comment, like, “I’m going to ignore my gadget during our meeting so I can focus fully on what we’re doing here and respect your time and trouble getting here.”  Realize, though, that in doing this you actually have to honor that commitment.  Also realize that those addicted may become nervous without a line of sight to their device.  And, accept that to some you meet with, they really DO think you are less valued and less important than they are, or their plethora of electronic friends.  But, it is worth a try, in any case.  

These non-verbal messages you are sending both by action and inaction are screaming louder that you can possibly imagine.  In foreign cultures, something as simple as glancing at a business card when it is handed to you is highly rude and will define everything that comes after it.  In others, NOT taking time to look at the card has the same effect.  When you travel internationally as a delegate, these important relationship-busting behaviors are part of your briefings.  Experts realize that it makes no sense to travel half way around the world in person, only to offend the other party by implying a lack of respect for them.  It would do us well to also recognize the dangers of mishandling our gadgets, both here at home and abroad, in this same light.

Relationships matter in every culture whether they are face-to-face or remote access.  But, for many the physical touch and proximity of human space is still a powerful tool in business and in friendships.  Don’t mess both up by allowing your gadget use to send non-verbal messages you never intended.

Follow the author on Twitter: @PamelaGorman

As originally published at punditleague.us

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