The Reference Desk – Feb 2012

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the December 2012 issue and is reprinted here with permission.


Q: One of our staff members brings a cell phone to our staff meetings and is constantly texting the entire time. I’m irritated beyond belief. This is so rude and disrespectful. He’s even done it once, to a less obvious degree, when we’ve met with our library partner. No one will say anything!

A: I sense your frustration, but I’m not sure what your question is. Are you looking for permission to say something, either to your colleague or to his/your supervisor? Do you need confirmation that his behavior is disrespectful and rude? Both answers come down to communication, followed by degrees of respect and courtesy.

Is his behavior rude and disrespectful? My instinct is to say “yes”; however, I’m basing that on the standards my elders set for me. For my parents, and for my generation to some extent, meetings were conducted by, and respect was shown to, the person who had the “talking stick.”   However, times change, and as much as I’d like to paraphrase Potter Stewart and say that we know rude, disrespectful behavior when we see it, it isn’t always that easy anymore. More collaborative styles of management, relaxed business etiquette, and an increasing use of technology have all played a role in transforming the way in which meetings are conducted.  This doesn’t mean that civility has been thrown out the window; it does, however, mean that the rules are still evolving.

Many businesses have adopted sets of meeting rules or ground rules. It’s a good idea to begin every meeting by having an attendee review the rules as a reminder to the staff and to inform any guests. This places everyone on the same page and is a critical “communication” piece. However, policies at different businesses vary. Some rules forbid the use of cell phones and mobile devices entirely. Some are more flexible and permit the courteous use of wireless devices. In any case, once the rules have been recited, everyone present will know what the expectations are.

If your library doesn’t have a policy, or if you believe it would be difficult to institute one, then by default it’s up to the individual who “owns” the meeting to make the rules. That person should set the expectations, either verbally or by modeling the behavior. I’ve observed judges who’ve set specific rules for courtroom decorum, and I’ve seen professors who’ve insisted that students shut their laptops and put mobile devices away during class. Those individuals own the meeting, and they get to make the rules.

Is your colleague being rude and disrespectful? Again, it depends. I mentioned that I inherited my values from my parents, who were raised during the Depression. I’m a baby boomer who now shares my work space with multiple generations. Much has been written about the collision of work ethics and values when multi-generations work side by side. For example, what happens if the individual who “owns” the meeting has his or her smart phone sitting on the table and frequently glances down at it? Is this the new norm? This illustrates why communicating expectations is so essential.   

I asked you earlier if you were looking for permission to say something to your colleague. If so, then my answer depends on several factors. If you’re running the meeting or holding the “talking stick,” then, yes, you should definitely say something. Hopefully by defining the meeting rules for all attendees, you won’t need to have a one-on-one conversation.

Is his behavior personally irritating to you, or are you his supervisor or designated mentor? If you aren’t his supervisor or his designated mentor, I would caution you against giving him unsolicited advice, regardless of your good intentions. However, try to reflect on the reasons his behavior irritates you. Do you find his texting distracting? Do you find his multitasking annoying? Reflect on the reasons before you speak. Whatever the reasons are, you will need to find a way to address them before things escalate and you say something you regret. It takes courage to enter the conflict zone. Keep heated emotions and blame out of the conversation, and speak from your point of view. For example, you might say, “When you text, I feel____.”    

You might best help him and yourself by remembering that so much of this is new ground for all of us, and we need to be nice to each other and ourselves. Good luck.

~Susan Catterall~

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