Gini Dietrich

Using Phones In Meetings: Professionally and Personally

By: Gini Dietrich | September 27, 2010 | 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about in-person conversations. A few weeks ago, I was at dinner with some friends and, with the exception of two of us, everyone was on their phones the entire time. Don’t get me wrong: I love technology as much as the next person and I love to check-in on Foursquare and tweet photos while I’m out. But we’ve gotten to the point that it’s socially acceptable to tweet, text, email, and even get up from the table to take a phone call. And this doesn’t happen just at dinner. It happens during the workday, too. In one-on-one meetings, in staff meetings, and in client meetings.

We are losing the ability to speak to one another as human beings. And it is extremely disrespectful.

Yesterday Mark Schaefer wrote about how badly he feels that someone he considers a friend has cystic fibrosis…and he had no idea. He had no idea because we all create a false sense of friendship with people we’ve met online without really getting to know them. And this goes hand-in-hand with using technology when we finally do get in front of someone. What happened to real conversations?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some goody two-shoes who never uses my iPhone when I’m out with friends. I do not (ever) use it when I’m with clients, but I don’t always have the self-control to leave it in my purse when with my friends. In fact, on Friday afternoon I used it to show my friend Lisa Gerber a photo of Tom Brady (how she didn’t know who he is still is beyond me, but I love her anyway!). It also comes in quite handy when you are arguing with someone and want to prove a point. But what happened to embellishing a story, just to make it more entertaining, without someone trying to prove you wrong?

It’s unacceptable for anyone at Arment Dietrich to use their phones during meetings. Now that I think about it, it’s not ever been spoken, so perhaps it’s because I don’t use mine that it’s become part of our culture. And I’d like to move that respect of one another’s time to workday meetings, as well as social outings. What do you think? Ready to make that commitment with me?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • No phones in meetings is good – eliminating most meetings altogether is even better. But you have a point, meetings should be focused on achieving their objective in as quick a time as possible and then moving on to the next thing.

  • Thanks for the nod, Gini. And by the way, we have yet to speak on the phone!! : )

  • Erin Russell


    This is an important and timely topic. I agree that the use of phones during business meetings and most social gatherings is incredibly rude.

    As an attorney I have to advise my clients directly and often about keeping phones silent and out of sight. I’ve had more than one client take a call during a legal proceeding despite being instructed otherwise.

    The art of conversation is being lost to communication technology. Ironic, isn’t it?

  • We NEVER use phones in meetings either! Which is why we were flabbergasted when we had a new client who developed the habit of texting us, when they didn’t receive a instant email reply or take their call. Imagine our shock when we informed them we had silenced our phone due to a meeting. Heck, they even texted us at dinner time, and on the weekends!

    We are however, quiet guilty of pulling the iPhones out at hockey & soccer games, or even sitting in the bar socializing with the other hockey parents this weekend. I think you have to try to step away, to unplug…but its also fun to be able to just take that quick unexpected pic when someone does something silly and unexpected too. I think its important to not let it be the most important thing, that setting it down wont kill you!

  • Carrie Bond

    Not only are we losing the art of conversation, but we are losing the art of courtesy as well. I’ve learned through my own misteps that I don’t want the person I’m with to feel less important than the tweet, facebook update, or text that can wait until later. Since I have small children I do have my phone out even when at social activities, in case of emergencies. That means, to me, all alerts are off except for phone calls. I do think it’s easy with all this technology to think we are being “social” without the ability to build relationships or even respect the relationships we already have.

  • Anne

    I couldn’t agree more, Gini! It’s common that, when I sit down to dinner with friends, the first thing they do is plop their phone on the table beside the plate, as if it were an essential piece of flatware. My own mother did this recently, and I had to take 5 minutes to explain “the rules” to her (no phone unless something urgent is expected). She wasn’t offended – she just hadn’t even considered that it makes your company feel they play second fiddle. There’s something about in-person interactions that makes phones seem like uninvited guests. I think it’s perfectly ok to ask your company for a phone ban!

  • I became aware of my problem when my husband (not especially tech savvy or even interested) started complaining about me having my face in my phone all the time. I’ve since made it a point to never bring it with me/ have it out during meetings, networking, social events or basically anywhere human interaction is expected. We spend too much time distracted and not really present when that is exactly what the people in our lives need from us (personally and professionally)and what we ourselves truly need – to be fully present where and with whom we are.

  • Les

    The ability to have a meaningful “face to face” conversation, business or social, is quickly going to be a point of differentiation. When you’re engaged with someone face to face, and engaged with your phone (texting, tweeting or talking) neither party is getting your best! You can’t give a 100% of your heart or your mind when it’s divided.

    Hat’s off to you and your team for the unspoken policy around cell phone use. If it had to be addressed (written or spoken) as a policy, it wouldn’t really be part of your company culture!

  • Hi Gini:

    Actually reading this in writing makes us reflect on our own actions. Friday night at a friend’s house, we were all chatting and two of our friends were on their phones most of the time and would blurt out comments on things they were reading. It was so distracting. I’ve done it myself. I left my phone at home that night, and you know what, it was pretty liberating!

    Regarding Mark’s story about his friend, it’s a wake up call that life is so short and we should consciously be aware of how important people are in our lives from friends to family to acquaintances we meet online.

    A source that keeps me on track personally and professionally is Leo Babauta’s blogs http://www.zenhabits. I love how he focuses on the simple, minimalist life. When we keep things like human interaction simple, everyone wins – ultimately this is transcended onto customers!

  • I agree with you, Les. You can’t give a person 100 per cent of your heart and mind when you are divided among multiple conversations! With your face in your phone, you not only miss parts of a personal conversation, the majority of which is shared through physical expression, you also neglect to give of yourself, which can debase the entire exchange. However, as a public relations professional deeply engaged in social media, I naturally have a hard time putting conversations on pause. Do you tell your other engagements that you are busy with another, or is it best to just go silent?

    • Les


      Not being in the PR, Marketing or Media business it’s pretty easy for me. I have a pretty simple rule. If I’m talking to you (or a prospect, customer or client) I don’t mess with my phone. Usually I don’t even have it on me. Fiddling with your phone while talking to another person has become the new millennium equivalent of looking at your watch.

      People who know me and have done business with me know if I can’t be reached it’s because I’m usually with another client.

  • Gini,

    This is my favorite post of the week. (And it is only Monday morning!)

    Smartphones in the workplace are very disruptive. (And I am a huge iPhone fan…)

    I was in a meeting recently and 8 of 11 participants were busy on their phones. And then they wonder why the meeting was so long. 🙂

    – Craig

  • Having lived in the board room for many years, there is no way anyone can pay attention while being engaged with their phones!
    For our company, no phones in office or client meetings.
    Another rule, two e-mails to communicate. Any more, pick up the phone or walk to their desk! Conversations back and forth get really old with me.

  • A friend of mine recently called me to ask me a question about a mutual friend. He said that he was going to text me, but he thought he would pick up the phone, I can’t tell you (with the exception of my mom, husband and best friend) how infrequently this happens, I almost felt as if he were writing me a letter longhand. This phenomena is not a good one as far as the continual development of interpersonal skills and clearly so many people (who probably use their phones A LOT) agree. I recently told my 18 year old step-daughter that when I was her age I would talk to my friends for hours on end, and one of the best parts about it is multiple times during the conversation, we would ACTUALLY laugh out loud. I am a culprit as well, but will vow to email and text less, and pick up the phone more.

  • For the record, however, I DO know who Bruce Jenner is. I thought you said a different first name so it wasn’t ringing a bell. LOL! thanks for outing my on the Tom Brady item. : )

    I have clients that take calls during my meetings with them and it drives me nuts. I find it incredibly rude, and inefficient on their part to pay for me to sit there and watch them do other business.

    Socially, I couldn’t agree more. I find myself following the lead of the others in the group. If it’s a phone-friendly group, I hop on in. I think I’ll handle that differently in the future!!!

    • Dang Lisa! Now everyone knows what we were watching this weekend! 🙂 I actually said Brody Jenner. But you know who I mean now.

      To your point about clients who take calls during meetings. I find that HUGELY disrespectful. It always makes me think they think their time is more valuable than mine. So why would they pay me to sit there and wait for them? It drives me insane.

      • Well we were FORCED to watch it, just short of putting our heads in a brace!!

  • Hi Gini, I’m a big fan of yours even if you do try to convert me to getting an iPhone (never!). Just had two quick thoughts on your timely reminder about the importance of human interaction.

    I’m the friend Mark wrote about in his post. I would just like to say for the record that I personally appreciate that Mark got to know me as an outspoken feminist before he knew me as a sick person! That’s certainly more how I think of myself.

    Secondly…where to begin? Of course I agree with your premise that in-person conversations are more important than e-conversations. We have, however, created such an expectation of “always available” that if someone doesn’t respond immediately to our text or instant message, we panic. Did something happen to them? etc. I find it hard to balance these things.

  • Our policy is that if your phone goes off (rings or vibrates) it’s a $50 fine.

    I too enjoy updating friends/family on SM but it’s ridiculous to call a meeting or go to a meeting and not pay full attention.

    • I like this! A new kind of “swear jar.”

  • Gini…Disrespectful was the perfect word to describe this. As someone who’s gone from the corporate world to the consultant/freelance world over the past year, I find it disconcerting when a client (or prospective client) continually checks e-mails and types away during our meeting.

    The one positive? There’s normally a pretty close correlation between a client using his/her phone in a meeting and how much of a pain that client is going to be to work with. And you can factor that knowledge into your pricing model appropriately. 🙂

    From a personal standpoint, my kids are the worst about this. We instituted “no texting at the dinner table and realized one day they can all text from their laps without looking at keyboards. Interestingly, it saves me a bit on the cell-phone bill because they do thousands of (unlimited) texts per month but probably make fewer that 30 calls per month (including girlfriend calls).

    Thanks for raising the issue.


  • Kim Connolly

    THANK YOU! This is my number one pet peeve. When I am in a meeting, I want your full attention. I find it an insult when folks are furtively checking emails or responding to texts under the table. My rule is that if I am having a human, face to face interaction, be it in the checkout line at the grocery store or in a meeting, no phone.

  • I think this says it all. Jerry Seinfeld on Blackberries & iPhones.

    We’ve learned how to use technology. Now we need to get back to some good old fashioned boundaries. I believe they’re called “manners”.

  • Bear with me, but I’m going to try to connect biker gangs to company meetings.

    I like the show “Sons of Anarchy,” and before every official biker meeting they have, they are required to put their cell phones in a basket. Every member in a meeting would have to physically separate themselves from their smart phones. Maybe this is necessary in “legitimate” businesses, too.

    It might sound like you’d be treating your coworkers like addicted children, but….it’s kind of necessary. I feel a lot better when I have my smartphone near me at all times, and when it’s near I feel like using it. My generation is hooked on technology. If it’s important company business, maybe it would be better for people to ditch their phones entirely for the duration of the meeting (or dinner with friends, or any other function where technology is being abused). Very few things in life need immediate attention…especially a mention on Twitter or email.

  • Gini,

    I’m guilty as charged!

    I’m finding myself (more and more) Tweeting while out to dinner, while “watching” TV, etc.


    I did NOT tweet, text, or have any distractions when we TALKED on the phone, last week.


    ((You’re right by the way. This phone stuff-texting stuff is taking over our lives.)

    Now excuse me. I have to make sure that The Franchise Princess has her phone at least 40 feet from her homework!

    The Franchise King®

  • Pingback: Something for my online friend, Mark()

  • Adam: I agree with you…no meetings is better. We only have the staff meeting every Monday morning. It shouldn’t be difficult to keep the phone out of the meeting for 90 minutes, once a week. When it really bothers me is when I go to see a client and the meeting ends up lasting three hours instead of one because they keep getting up. OR! When I’m speaking and you can tell the difference between people tweeting and people answering email. I hate that.

    Mark: I’m holding you to an in-person meeting!

    Erin: I am SHOCKED people use their phones in legal situations…especially after they’re told not to. I’d be too scared to pull my phone out!

    Jennifer: We talked about this on Twitter earlier – I love that our clients have multiple ways to reach us. But they also know I typically don’t answer text messages (or cell phone calls) during business hours.

    Carrie: Having your phone out for emergencies is totally different than being on your phone all night. There are some exceptions. 🙂

    Anne: When I was looking for art to go along with this blog post, I found a cartoon that said, “Now which side does the phone go?” and it was a picture of a table setting. LOL!

    Molly: How are you married to someone not interested in technology (Mr. D could care less either!)?!? I’m with you…I leave it in my purse.

    Les: Remind me not to pull my phone out next time I see you. 🙂

    Alexandra: Early, early on I would panic if I couldn’t get to Twitter for a few hours. Then I realized I was the only one panicking. People adjust to when you respond…they don’t expect responses every second. We all have jobs to do. People get that.

    Craig: My goal is to give you five favorites this week!

    Jan: Heck to the yes! I love the email rule. Love!

    Beverly: You would actually laugh out loud. That’s awesome! I remember I was on the phone for hours with some boy when I was in ninth grade and it was my turn to make dinner. I caught the phone cord on fire because I kept talking to him while I cooked. I’m pretty sure I got grounded for that.

    Jenn: An outspoken feminist! LOVE IT! Like I said to Alexandra above, the only person really panicking that you aren’t answering immediately is you. Yes, people will panic if it takes more than a day if they’re used to hearing from you immediately. But most of us know you have a job to do and answering tweets, FB messages, and text messages isn’t always in your job description.

    Greg: Like Tom, I love the swear job idea! During our Vistage meetings, it’s $20 if your phone goes off. People will actually call one another, just to get them in trouble. 🙂

    Peter: So the kids text under the table, with one hand, without ever looking? Now I know why we have no texting laws.

    Kim: YES! Granted, I’ll check my phone in line at the grocery store (because I hate lines), but there is nothing worse than being in a meeting and having people get up to take calls or say, “Hang on a second, let me answer this.” Oy.

    Kat: As usual, you literally make me laugh out loud. That was hilarious! I hadn’t seen it. “Can I just pick up a magazine and put it in front of your face?”

    Tom: Biker gangs?! What is this blog coming to?? I’d like to do that with clients. Perhaps I will. I was talking to some fellow business owners about this and they think it’s okay to bring phones (and iPads) to meetings for note taking. I get that. But I think you can also tell the difference between someone actively taking notes and someone checking email. Besides, it sounds like you’re like me…if it’s there, I will sneak it. Better for it not to be there.

    Joel: You crack me up! If you did text or tweet while we were on the phone, you hid it well. I couldn’t tell!

  • Sadly, I learned this only recently. (Ask my wife!) The largest part of communication is being there and being engaged with the other person, whether in a business or a social setting. The world will NOT end if you turn your phone/device off for two hours. (And if you need to sneak a peek, do so during a real or trumped-up bio break!)

    If something is so urgent and important that you can’t take time for a social engagement, then stay at work and WORK. Apologize to your social appointment, reschedule, and do something really nice for the rescheduled appointment. (And above all, turn off the phone!)

    I’ll admit that I have more latitude to do this than I had several years ago. But I will tell you that practicing this simple rule has restored a great deal of sanity and richness to my life.

    It’s time to bring some civility back to face-to-face encounters. When you’re in one, be there!

  • Amen Gini. I have a practical reason for never using my phone during any face-to-face conversation or meeting. I’m a little slow and it is tough enough listening and giving 100% of my attention to the conversation. Darn, multi-tasking just complicates the conversation for me. Then again, I’m one of those older Vistage males who just don’t get the impact of social media on businesses. 🙂

    I did try this one recently with someone. They received a call when we were meeting and said “Do you mind if I take this call?” and my response was “Yes I do” Interesting facial reaction!

    BTW, my wife and I got a demonstration recently from our kids on how they can text from their pockets and behind their back. Yikes!

    • Jim, I would LOVE to see your kids text from their pockets or behind their backs. I thought I was good. I’m not that good.

  • There is no cell phone with me when I attend a client meeting. During the meeting, if the client uses their cell phone to see email, text or take a call, I get up, suggest it is better if we re-schedule, and leave.

  • p.s. each time I have done this, the client has called me, apologized, and asked for another meeting.

    In fairness, 90% of our work comes from referrals – usually from the clients legal counsel, board members, or close colleagues.

    I am there to help them avoid or fix serious problems, and I have no problem firing clients who fail to understand that severity or immediate need for attention – they are wasting my time, and theirs if the focus is not where is should be.

  • Maybe I am being a bit more optimistic on the topic in that I think in time we (humans) will find a balanced way of communicating both verbally and electronically.

    Let me give you an example:

    A few years back I was out having brunch with some non-digital-industry friends at a dimsum place called Jade Garden here in London.

    Next to us was a table of 6-7 chinese teens. From they entered the restaurant till they left they did’t speak. Instead they were constantly (and I do mean every second) on their mobile phones.

    Naturally, we were all appalled as we were intrigued by this.

    Years later (as in now) it is not uncommon for the same people I dined with then to know take photos of our food and upload it to Facebook or Twitter and now even a few have started to check-in on FourSquare.

    This didn’t happen overnight, it happened over a period of years in which we’ve all become used to this way of using digital media as part of a wider social experience. It is no longer in the way as it has found its natural balance.

    I have noticed a similar change in the corporate environment I am currently working in, but I am collecting those thoughts in a blog post as they are somewhat more extensive that what will fit in a comment box.

  • For a professional a phone is a tool. Even with all the helpful tools and cool distractions it is a tool. So…. If you are running the meeting, why should anyone be calling/texting/emailing? If the use of phone is critical, step out (remember the dark ages of pagers?) If it’s acceptable to use the media in the meeting, why are you having the meeting. Similar criteria apply to social gathering. Why are you having lunch/conversation with someone that spends the entire time doing something other than engaging?

  • Kevin Traut

    Basic rules at our company, and in my sales meetings.

    No phone / email usage is stated at beginning of each meeting. No phones on vibrate either, the distraction is there on vibrate or ring – must be silenced completely.

    If sales mgr is involved in exe staff meetings they must state at beginning of the meeting if there is a single call, escalation, high client executive they are anticipating possibly receiving and needing to respond to. (No checking of email from anyone at meetings)

    Phones can be used to put follow up calendar events in at the end of the meeting or in scheduling next meeting time.

    At my sales meetings, I clearly identify when the breaks are, hold to that timeline for all to respond to clients, and ask up front does anyone have anything pending that deems keeping phone on and then as manager make determination to allow phone to be on the table. 99% of the time things can wait for a break.

    Pretty basic, besides immediate checking of inbox has been clinically proven to make you less effective then if you were smoking a bud each morning. No lie

  • Once again, you hit the nail on the head. I get that sometimes we’re all a bit addicted to our technology, so we sneak a peak when we’re with friends. It’s not “proper etiquette” — but it’s not disastrous either.

    But, being in a client situation is very different. I used to have a client who was *constantly* on his phone checking email during meetings or would interrupt conversation to take a call — even if it wasn’t urgent. I always felt like he thought his time was so much more valuable than anyone else’s in the meeting, which totally rubbed me the wrong way. When I’m with clients, I want them to feel like they’re my top priority. Who’s to say whose time is more valuable/important?

    We live in a world where perception is reality. When you pull out your phone, what will the person across the table from you perceive? That they’re not worth your undivided attention? That’s not a message I want to send …


  • Nancy Cawley Jean

    YES! I’m ready! You’re right that it’s become an accepted practice, but I still think it’s a distraction to meetings, get-togethers, etc. and almost conveys a sense of “someone else is much more important than you.” I think we live in a 24/7 world where we feel the pressure to always be available, always have a response. But at what cost? Bad manners and poor IRL relationships! Maybe I’m just getting old, or tired, but I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head with this one (yet again, should I say??). Nothing takes the place of real conversation, and nothing ever will. I’m with you, Gini. Oh, and BTW — good move introducing your friend to Tom Brady. I heart Tom Brady — and no offense to your beloved team, but I get to have him as QB of my hometown team!! Yes, you can be jealous. 😉

  • What’s worse than a person taking a call during a meeting? Taking a call, then telling the person on the phone you are in a meeting and that you can’t talk. You’ve now succeeded in offending both the folks in the meeting AND the caller!

    Our company has a strict no phones policy during client meetings, and a no phones policy for internal meetings with one exception: if you are expecting an important call, you can have your phone on if you ask for permission in advance from your meeting colleagues in advance, which of course is generally always granted…

    Good topic Gini…

  • My advice for what to do when you are out with someone whips out his/her phone while you are talking is to just stop talking and stare at them until they are done. If they don’t get the message, then text them and ask them how long they are going to be because you have a T.V. show to and you don’t want to be late. Alternatively, you could just get up and leave without saying anything. Or, would that be too rude?

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  • Gini Dietrich

    Peter: You didn’t use your phone when we had coffee! When I was using the restroom last night at dinner I thought of you saying it was a trumped up break. SO TRUE!

    Greg: I wish I had your cajones! We have one client I would love to pack and leave if they got on their phone. Drives me batty!

    Robert: TOTALLY agree that this using our phones for everything thing didn’t happen overnight. I’m no saint. I sneak my phone, especially when out socially. But I’ve made a conscious effort to put it away and leave it away.

    Barry: I agree there are reasons you might need to use a phone, but they are few and far between. When we finally meet, we’ll put our phones away until we leave! 🙂

    Kevin: I like what you say about the proof of immediately checking your inbox. I actually turn my inbox off for a few hours every day just so I can get work accomplished and am not distracted. It works beautifully!

    Heather: I love your Facebook profile picture with you texting! It’s one of my favorites! But I agree with you that when clients (or even colleagues) constantly check their phones when you’re with them, it feels like they value their own time more than yours. I once had someone say, “What’s the big deal? You’re billing them for your time.” But the big deal is that I have about 15,000 other things I need to accomplish and you’re holding up my ability to do that!

    Nancy: Would you please tell Tom Brady to cut his hair??

    Bill: Our Vistage group has a $20 fine if you use your phone during meetings. I guess I’ve taken that idea and implemented it throughout our culture…without having to charge.

    Dave: I would LOVE to get up and leave the next time a person gets on their phone while out with me. I might do it and then call you immediately to tell you I did it!

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