For planned meetings and interviews, he recommends putting on an out-of-office message on the device, saying you are in meetings but have a policy of returning messages as soon as is practical. "This will demonstrate you are organized, while at the same time soothing the expectations of the senders, as well as eliminating any guilt you might be feeling about not answering right away," he says.
If you really must check your BlackBerry in the presence of others, ask for permission for a brief time out, after which you'll return to the discussion, Mr. Prentice advises. "Not only does this signify you find the person important, it eliminates any misunderstanding about whether you should be diverting your attention."
There really should be very few times when it comes down to a choice between face time with a person or with a machine, says Linda Allan, president of etiquette and management consultancy Linda Allan Inc. in Toronto.
"People have become so obsessed with keeping in touch and keeping things moving that they forget that, unless it is critical, they don't have to respond to a message as soon as something comes in," she says.
The compulsion to answer messages instantly arises from a fear that people will look like they've dropped the ball, Ms. Allan says. "But many people hold text conversations back and forth in little blips that really advance things very slowly and waste everyone's time," she says.
She advises learning to resist the urge to text on the spot.
"Letting it be known that you respond to text messages when you can give them proper attention gives your eventual answer more weight," she says.
Not only do you have more time to formulate what you want to say, but you also prime recipients to look forward to hearing from you. Those who can't resist the call of the screen should grab a mirror and notice the impression they make with their posture and body language, she suggests.
People who are constantly hunched over their devices pecking away can quite easily look like they are frantic and overworked, rather than organized and competent, she says. Holding the device in front of you, rather than in your lap, and sitting up straight makes you look more confident and also helps you pay better attention to what is going on around you, she says.
"The bottom line is that people have more to gain from practising and nurturing their face-to-face relationships than they do in replying to the call of their BlackBerry," Mr. Prentice says.
Speaking of calls, there's one he's found in an informal poll that male colleagues consider crossing the line: using a PDA while answering the call of nature. "The ultimate of multi-tasking may be using a PDA while standing at a urinal. But it's a technique I see as particularly fraught with danger."
Dealing with the devices: Here are tips from etiquette expert Linda Allan and office technology consultant Steve Prentice:
- Take charge Set times during the day when you choose to check messages; otherwise put the gadget away.
- Shut it up The "new message" reminder or sound can tempt you, so turn it off.
- Filter priorities Set up your e-mail filter during busy work hours to forward messages only from specific, high-priority contacts. Save the others to read at less hectic times.
- Say I shall return To allay expectations of an instant response, set up an out-of-office message that promises a well-thought-out reply as soon as possible.
- Talk rather than text Text messages beget more text. A phone call can often solve problems more quickly and completely. A bonus is that vocal messages are more personal and can carry more authority than written words.
- Hide the face If you need to have the device out in a meeting to reference calendar or memos, place it face-down so you are not tempted to look and to show you are paying attention to the gathering.
- Schedule text breaks At meetings, set ground rules for checking PDAs. Instead of an outright ban, consider a 20-minute break in mid-meeting.
- Ask permission If you're waiting for an important e-mail or call, let others at the meeting know ahead of time that you're expecting it.
- Take it outside If you must answer a message or take a call during a meeting, excuse yourself from the room to avoid distracting everyone else.
- Set boundaries Avoid replying to messages on evenings and weekends, or contacts will be conditioned to always expect instant answers.
- If you really must... Don't succumb to stealth. Keeping the device under the table and typing sneakily will only make people think you are hiding something; better to let people see what you really are up to.