When Did Cell Phone Use Become Part of Body Language?

As an avid follower of the impact of non-verbal behavior on business-building and communication, I was surprised to see a reference to cell phone etiquette in a recent article from Inc.com on body language.

The article mentioned many of the basic non-verbal communication high-points:  eye contact, handshakes, posture, and voice dynamics. But the inclusion of cell phone etiquette in this line-up is an interesting premise.  Our cell phones have certainly become a vital part of our anatomy. So, … when is accessing your cell phone crossing the line into the realm of bad body language?

We’ve all had those uncomfortable moments when our cell phones ring during an important lunch gathering, a monthly board meeting or in the hallowed halls of the IRS, the courthouse and even church. I have, on occasion, been offended by colleagues who take repeated cell phone calls during get-togethers and been personally embarrassed when I was the one caught off guard with my own ringing phone during a major meeting.

However, the ultimate in bad behavior came when, several years ago, my lunch partner told me he was going to “jump on a conference call” half-way through our lunch meeting! He had set the conference call knowing we would be in the middle of a business lunch and, minor kudos to him, had alerted me that he would be taking the call. I tactfully suggested we postpone our meeting.

As I have told this story to colleagues over the years — and worked with management teams and their staffs on verbal and non-verbal communications tactics for business-building — I have received a wealth of feedback covering different situations of varying formality and purpose.

Rules For The Road

  • If you are expecting a call during a meeting — whether it is from a hard-to-reach doctor or your child’s school, a client who needs to give you a quick answer on an urgent question or a clerk with notice of a verdict — it is OK to take the call if you alert your meeting partner that you are expecting it at the outset. We all know life comes at us fast and, sometimes, the intersection of one’s business and personal life is unavoidable.
  • Even the most multi-tasking power professionals agree that if you do, indeed, answer that one call, it does not mean you should take more calls. Once you have received the call, just thank your colleague for his/her patience and put the phone away or on silent mode.
  • Most business professionals agree that they would “absolutely not” take or make any calls or check messages in the normal course of a client lunch or a meeting; none think it is appropriate to “jump on a conference call” at any time.  However, the majority of professionals did, indeed, approve of their clients taking calls. After all, the client is (almost) always right.
  • A managing partner of a CPA firm was emphatic that the message you send when you take a call is that the person calling you is more important than the person you are meeting with face-to-face. He advocated that “nobody should be more important than the person you are meeting with; 99 percent of such interruptions can wait an hour.”
  • A savvy litigator relayed that it is often tempting to discreetly check messages during a long deposition and shared that he may do so on occasion. However, he noted that if the client is in attendance and paying for your time, it is never wise to take any calls or look at any messages.

Research from a December 2013 Forbes.com article entitled “Why Successful People Never Bring Smartphones Into Meetings” actually found that using cell phones in meetings shows lack of respect, attention, listening and power.  Yikes. No matter where cell phone etiquette lands within the spheres of non-verbal communication and business-building, it’s certainly an important topic of conversation for business professionals and their workplaces.