I did it last night: I received a text while walking to dinner and, despite the fact that I was in the middle of crossing a four-lane street with a bike lane, I glanced at the message and started typing a response. I veered for just a second and almost walked into someone coming the other way.
I sneer when other people do it. I even have a name for this behavior: thumb drunk. I’ve read the accounts of how dangerous texting while driving can be, but the thing that actually got me to stop was almost sideswiping a car while driving down a small, deserted street. Apparently I needed to feel how much my behavior resembled being drunk before I quit texting-while-driving cold turkey.
Check your employee manual. I’ll bet it includes something like: no drinking at work. Among other problems, being inebriated in a meeting means you’re not really able to engage, focus and contribute. So why are we ok with people pulling out their smartphones and checking their email in the middle of a discussion? Perhaps the fact that these distractions live in our pockets causes us to forget how disruptive they really are. If people stepped out of a meeting every time they checked their phone, we’d at least have a behavior that was closer to what is really happening, because when you’re texting or e-mailing during a meeting, you’re not in the meeting.
Conversations are at least as complex as driving, and at best being thumb drunk in a meeting causes stress for the person you’re ignoring and shows everyone else that what's being discussed isn't important to you. Little things like that add up to mistrust and resentment. That’s not exactly the same as causing a car accident, but it’s not good.
Of course, texts happen. In our office, we have all sorts of tricks to prevent the problems caused by interruptions during meetings. The most important one is acknowledging that they are interruptions. If we’re in a meeting when a phone call comes in on the office phone, we stop the meeting and let someone answer. We don’t barrel through and assume that the person taking the call will catch up when they're done. Text messages are the same. Sometimes they’re important, like a change of plans or a family member letting you know they’re sick. But if someone could push a button and make one of your co-workers drunk in the middle of a meeting, chances are you’d stop and wait for them to un-press it before you said something important.
For more on setting boundaries at work, check out our Workplace Lab page.