About 10 years ago, I shared a taxi with a colleague and mid-conversation she pulled out her BlackBerry to respond to an e-mail. Although I knew she needed to take care of an important event at work, I recall thinking her behaviour was the pinnacle of rudeness.
Today, that behaviour occurs constantly, and I'm likely one of the worst perpetrators. I can't resist the buzz of my iPhone and read every e-mail, text and tweet surreptitiously, even when I'm in the middle of an in-person conversation. While I can often pull off two conversations, occasionally I fail miserably. Sometimes, I get so deeply engrossed in my secondary, digital conversation that I can only muster monosyllabic responses in real life before conceding that I haven't heard a word.
I'm certainly not alone in perpetuating this uncivilized behaviour. I often count the number of people engaging in digital conversations while at restaurants. I once counted eight people at a table, all interacting with their phones. This isn't mere multitasking; it's something more complicated and arguably more sinister.
We live in a time of multicommunicating, where no one person gets personal attention for long. It's the institutionalization of rudeness and with the healthy growth of smartphone usage in Canada – 47 per cent own one now, up from 34 per cent in 2012 – it's only going to get worse.
Despite this self-awareness, I have no intention of changing my behaviour. My desire to be available and immediately responsive to a variety of people at the same time is just too great. So what do we do with this knowledge that workplace civility may never be the same?
To find an answer, I turned to my favourite source for a public perspective: Twitter. One friend said the proper etiquette while multicommunicating is to explain that you need to indulge in a slight technical diversion, deal with it quickly and then refocus your attention to live company.
Another Twitter acquaintance said she walks away from a conversation when presented with this behaviour.
Academics, too, are torn about the impact of this conduct in the workplace. While many studies suggest that multitasking remains unproductive, experts have yet to write off multicommunicating.
Jane Webster, a professor of management information systems at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, and Ann-Frances Cameron, an associate professor at business school HEC Montreal, studied the effects of multicommunicating. They concluded that while it leads to a downward spiral of incivility, it is also necessary behaviour for specific business environments.
"The biggest problem we found [as a result of multicommunicating] is this perception of incivility," Prof. Webster said. Asking a colleague to repeat things raises suspicion levels that you aren't paying attention, which is discourteous.
That has an impact on feelings of trust, which can undermine working relationships. Incivility, she added, is considered "low-level deviant behaviour," meaning that although many will tolerate it, if it is left unchecked it can spin out of control.
Multicommunicating is more complicated than multitasking because instead of juggling tasks, you are juggling people. It's important to gauge what is acceptable in different corporate cultures and among specific colleagues.
"Some people interpret it differently, and the ones that like to focus on one task get offended quite quickly. It's important to know how the people you work with like to communicate," Prof. Webster said.
She also found that employees have a lower tolerance for multicommunicating when it is done by a manager, compared with a colleague.
Juggling several types of communication at once has some benefits, including improving efficiency in some workplaces. Ms. Cameron cited the example of taking part in a teleconference and simultaneously sending a text to a colleague to get an update about an issue being discussed.
We may be institutionalizing rudeness with our gadgets, but increasingly it's a more productive way to work.
Time to get past our misgivings about being rude and determine the proper etiquette of managing multiple conversations, on multiple devices all at once. Some will continue to feel slighted. If I've been the one to offend, please accept my apology via text in advance.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org