Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Defense of Eric Cantor's Use of His Blackberry

One topic that arose from the President's health care reform speech was a furor surrounding Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va, Minority Whip) and his Blackberry. Rep. Cantor was caught on video, eyes down, focused on the screen of his phone and not "paying attention" during the President's speech. Across a spectrum of media that I tuned into yesterday, there were repeated comments about his behavior. Most of the commentary that I heard ranged from disappointment to exasperation, with a general consensus that the behavior was rude.

The entire incident reminded me of an earlier post I did on how age and demographics affected perceptions of using a Blackberry or a laptop during a meeting. In this case, it appears that the media has tapped into that demographic that is uncomfortable with this kind of behavior.

While I suspect that it's unlikely to find me defending a political position that Rep. Cantor holds and it normally wouldn't bother me to see him swimming in bad press, in this case I feel inclined to defend him. While I understand that for some, it probably isn't good formal meeting etiquette to text or check email during a meeting, short of presenting the illusion of an enraptured audience for the video cameras, what was the harm here?

It's not like he was driving a moving vehicle or operating heavy machinery. He wasn't being asked to make quick decisions on-the-fly. Realistically, he didn't really have to do anything other than sit, quietly (for the most part). It wasn't like his phone rang or he was talking during the meeting (I gave a couple of presentations at a conference in Beijing where the audience members talked on their phones during the presentation). It's not even like this was a dimly lit theater, where the glow from his phone would distract from the movie or the stage performance.

This was a presentation, not a conversation. It wasn't like the President was running through a list of statistics and formulas, where absorbing every moment and every data point were critical. Theoretically, if that were the case, you would expect that he could get a detailed review following the speech, either from the transcripts or through notes taken by his aides.

What's more, who knows what he was using his Blackberry for. Maybe he was looking up the history behind one of the medical cases sited by the President during his speech. Perhaps he was sending a note to his staff to pull all of the data relevant to a specific point in the presentation. Or maybe what he was doing wasn't related -- perhaps planning a secret romantic encounter or he might have just been looking at NFL news and planning for his upcoming fantasy football season. He might even have been doing several of those things during the speech.

Meanwhile, take the guy four seats to the right or to the left of Cantor. What do you think is on his mind? Medical cases? Instructions for his staff? Romantic encounters? Football? Some of this is all about the illusion of attention and behavior; simply put, acting for the camera. In many ways, it's similar to the note pads that candidates use to write on during the televised debates. The purpose of 'taking notes' is not the notes, it's to manage the candidates' appearance during 'off-screen' camera shots -- within the context of an event that is structured like a conversation.

For me, the bottom line is that I don't think that Rep. Cantor's behavior with his Blackberry was inappropriate. Put into a different context, if the speech was that exciting, the content was that compelling, or the event was that engaging, he would have put down his phone. Or not picked it up in the first place. All too often we are asked to pretend to listen politely to bad speakers and lame content -- or people format their presentation content to follow a predictable structure that alienates their audience on technique alone. It's like the pre-flight safety presentation -- is there anyone on the plane who isn't already familiar with the basic content presented, and if there were a change to the content, do you really expect anyone to hear it since you've already lost them by using the same old script?

Imagine if Rep. Cantor Had an iPhone
What if, instead of having a Blackberry, Rep. Cantor had an iPhone? While he might have been texting, browsing the web, or looking up his favorite section of the Constitution (there's an app for that), what would have happened if he were using it to play a game, tipping the phone back and forth or moving it in 3D space? I would say that, if you're behavior is such that you stand out more than the presenter, then etiquette dictates that you've crossed a line. Perhaps, somewhere in there, we can offer some etiquette guidelines for when and how it's okay to use your phone in a meeting and when it isn't.

When You Should Avoid Using Your Phone (for texting, not voice calls)
  • When the glow from your phone display is the brightest light in the meeting (not including dim participants), you might consider refraining from using your phone.
  • When you're engaged in a direct conversation.
  • When you're in a meeting where somebody asks you a question and you need to have the question repeated.
  • When you're participating in a social network where the other people in the meeting are linked to you but expecting you to be focused on the meeting.
  • When you haven't turned your volume off.
When It Should Be Okay to Use Your Phone (for texting, not voice calls)
  • When the other meeting participants bring a phone or laptop to the meeting.
  • If you get a text from another meeting participant.
  • When you the one who sets the meeting agenda and rules.
  • When it's a large, boring meeting, and you are not the center of attention.
  • When you want to show off your techno-nerd chops.
  • When you want to look like you have something more important to think about.

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