Sunday, May 31, 2009

The End of Crackberries

The very first workshop I led here, a woman approached me at the podium as I was setting up my materials.

"I am in the middle of negotiating the sale of my house," she said quietly, "so I might need to take a phone call during your talk tonight." I stared at her blankly. I wasn't sure if I should congratulate her for being able to sell her house in this market....or just nod politely. "So, I'm going to leave my cell phone on in case I need to step out," she continues, sensing I'm not quite catching on here.

Oh, you're telling me that your cell phone will be left on during the workshop and that you may walk outside for a bit?

""Yes"", she nodded. "I didn't want to be rude or for you to wonder if I glanced at my phone from time to time."

Are you KIDDING I am thinking to myself. Someone looking at their phone during a workshop. Or seminar. Or meeting. Or in the middle of lunch. Or in the supermarket. Or on the freeway driving 70 miles per hour. This is standard operating procedure. Not only am I accustomed to the occasional buzzing, vibrating and errant iTunes interrupting any and all business and social interactions, I have grown numb to half of any group of people gathered together busily tapping their screens below the table as they text away, oblivious to the fact that REAL people are having REAL conversations in REAL time. Right in front of them.

I start the workshop and sure enough, about 20 minutes in, Carol discreetly picks up her phone and wanders outside. I find myself wondering if the sale is going ok and at the end of the night, she confirms that indeed, she made forward progress on the deal.

I've now facilitated eight workshops here in Gizzy and no one else has approached me at the beginning of a session with a similar apology or explanation.

They didn't need to, because people here don't use their PDAs when they are in meetings. I hadn't realized how accustomed I had become to doubletasking myself. Task 1: Facilitate any number of significant, critical conversations among clients that hire me to navigate them through difficult issues. Task 2: Try to quiet the noise in my own head when I see the inevitable participant doing their own private lap dance with their Blackberry.

I share this particular "difference" in culture and protocol with a group of women gathered last week to participate in a communication workshop. They are curious about the differences between U.S. executives and kiwis. I can see they expect me to hold forth with some profound observations about personality or leadership style or management perspectives.

I think for a moment or two. The biggest difference? Intellect? Nope. These kiwis are sharp. Personality? Hmmm...they are more informal, but no less professional. Confidence? Americans are confident...but New Zealanders are somehow more solid.

Actually, the biggest difference is that when I'm with a group of kiwis, everyone is here in the room. No one is on their cell phone. No one is on their Blackberry. The phone never rings.

They look at me astonished. Do people use their phones during meetings or lectures in the U.S.?


But that is so RUDE. [The women get as close to an uproar as I've seen]. Disbelief hangs in the room like a musty coat in the cedar closet.

Yes, it is RUDE. We call this addiction to immediacy "double tasking." And being efficient. We wear our 24/7 badge like an Eagle Scout. But while our fingers are busy being responsive, our attention is MIA. Why is returning an e-mail more important than returning my gaze?

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