Stop Texting Under the Table

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Barbara Pachter explains how business etiquette is changing.

By Matthew Budman

Stop Texting Under the Table

Matthew Budman is editor-in-chief of TCB Review.

pachter3How does one dress for a Skype conversation with an etiquette expert? Barbara Pachter writes: “Make sure your clothing is appropriate. Just because you are not meeting in person does not mean the interviewer or business associate cannot see what you are wearing. And don't assume only your upper body is showing. Dress professionally from head to toe.”

Honestly, “. . . to toe” seemed excessive, and fortunately, Pachter didn't insist on a full-body scan.

In The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success (McGraw-Hill), she takes on a wide range of up-to-date proper business behavior, from how to properly shake hands to warnings to spend less time on Twitter—which, really, seems like advice that shouldn't need to be given. “Yes,” she agrees. “But we're not quite there yet with social media. There's a learning curve. I think in another couple of years, everyone will know the guidelines. But the difficulty with technology, the good and the bad, is that as soon as we overcome a major hurdle, there's a new type of technology out there, and we have to start all over again!”

Pachter spoke from her home in Cherry Hill, N.J.

As our personal lives shade into our work lives, has the scope of “business etiquette” expanded? Are you more often offering advice on what people do after 5 p.m.?

Yes. We have become 24/7, and it used to be that if you wrote an email to somebody at 9 o'clock at night, you would wait and send it the next morning, before you left for the office. Now, people are sending emails at 9 o'clock, and they're getting answers! Go to bed! The workday is over! And smartphones have changed things, because at some companies, you would carry two phones, but a lot of them now are allowing you to have one phone that's your work and your personal phone. So you're never away. There's no downtime. And we really have to work to make sure that when we close the office door, we leave everything behind.

Aren't companies increasingly aware that this is a problem? At The Conference Board, there's something of a mandate to try not to send emails on the weekends—and, if you do, to try not to expect replies.

The emphasis is on try not to. Not don't.

It still happens, of course: Entire conversations take place over the weekend, with half a dozen people involved.

The new thing now is telling people, "Please do not leave your phone on the table." Because if I have my phone out, what I am saying is that, "I am so ready to drop you and pick up that phone."

The guideline used to be that you needed to respond to emails within twenty-four hours. Now, people expect an answer right away, and you feel guilty if you can't do it. I do coaching, and if I got an email right now, I wouldn't respond to it—and the sender might wonder, “Well, why can't you respond right away?”

So much of new business etiquette comes from technology. Has the informality and immediacy of email, chat, and social media changed behavior in the real-world workplace?

I don't believe it's changed it, but people have gotten into more trouble because of it. People send emails without thinking. People send emails on their phone and use text shortcuts, and they're not OK in an email. One woman interviewed for a job, went to write her thank-you note from her phone, forgot it was an email, used text shortcuts, and didn't get the job as a result. There are consequences to all of these things. So technology has absolutely changed the way we interact with each other.

But there's a learning curve with technology. I don't have to remind people not to use all caps in an email anymore. That's been around for a while. I don't have to remind people, if they're leaving a voice-mail message, to speak slowly and to say the number slowly. I don't even have to remind people to put their phone on vibrate anymore. Most people know to do that. But now, it's the texting under the table. People are still doing that. In my experience, it's slightly better. What happens is, over time, etiquette experts weigh in, and people learn from their mistakes. So ultimately, I think it will be to the same level that phone-on-vibrate and everything else is. But we're just not quite there yet with texting under the table.

Of course, the people who most need your advice are those new to the business world—it can be a rough transition out of college. But what about experienced people? How much help do they need?

They often need more than they think. They haven't gotten a refresher, and the business world is always changing. And oftentimes, people are unaware of how they present themselves to others. They don't realize what their clothing is telling people; they don't know how to shake hands; they don't even greet people properly. Small things can make a big difference in how you establish a relationship with someone. The person who you say hello to on the way to the meeting may ultimately be sitting next to you at that meeting, and you've already established what I call minor rapport.

And people don't stop to think about it. We get so preoccupied that we don't realize that every day we are establishing our image at work.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.