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Shawn Kahandaliyanage learned an embarrassing lesson about the dangers of his BlackBerry obsession.

Mr. Kahandaliyanage had developed what he thought was an "excellent strategy" to allow him to text while walking: "I'd latch on to the brightest coloured shoes I could find, and follow behind that person, keeping their shoes in my peripheral vision while keeping my eyes [and attention]glued to my BB," says the director of business development for Waterloo, Ont.-based mobile video company Metranome Inc.

All well and good until he got off a plane in the Ottawa airport one day en route to a business meeting. Trying to catch up on his e-mails, he followed a pair of red high heels. Suddenly, the shoes came to a halt and turned in his direction.

"I looked up, and was met by the dirty stare of the woman with the red heels. I had followed her straight into the ladies room," Mr. Kahandaliyanage says.

Mr. Kahandaliyanage's experience is a good example of how mesmerizing the little glowing devices can be to their users - so mesmerizing that they can get those users into trouble.

Whether while walking through an airport or sitting in a business meeting with head bowed and fingers tapping, users who pay more attention to their BlackBerrys, iPhones and other portable devices than to the people around them are displaying etiquette-challenging behaviour that could be career-limiting, experts say.

Nearly one-fifth of 5,000 U.S. workers say they have been reprimanded by their employers or fellow workers for showing bad manners with their wireless device, a recent survey found.

The biggest bone of contention: responding to a device in a meeting or a presentation, followed by answering one at a business dinner, according to the poll by on-line job site Yahoo! HotJobs.

Such distraction can even cost a job.

This month, New York State Senator Malcolm Smith was unseated from his rank as majority leader in a political coup organized by a billionaire power broker who was enraged when Mr. Smith paid more attention in a meeting to his BlackBerry than to him.

"I thought that was very rude," said Rochester, N.Y., businessman Tom Golisano. Mr. Golisano told reporters he'd travelled 400 kilometres to get an audience with Mr. Smith "and the guy comes into his office and starts playing with his BlackBerry... I was miffed."

As fraught with pitfalls as the obsession with handheld devices may be, anyone who depends on them knows that going cold turkey is not an option. So it's important to develop techniques for their use that shows respect for those around you.

The experts say there are simple strategies that can not only let you indulge your habit and avoid annoying others, but make you look more competent in the process.

"A fundamental reality is you have to put the device in its place," says Steve Prentice, president of workplace technology consultancy Bristall Morgan Inc. in Toronto.

"The fundamental rule of career success is the quality of your relationships. Any action that diminishes your attention and rapport with others is a threat to your career prospects," he adds.

"This is not about being a Luddite or about being old-fashioned. People must always come first."

But that doesn't mean you have to hide your BlackBerry in the process. In fact, you can demonstrate that you are a savvy user of technology, he says.

For instance, when meeting a client or a colleague, make a visual demonstration of turning the device off or to silent mode, in front of the other person, he suggests. "This demonstrates the value you are putting on the conversation at hand. There is no better way to forge a genuine relationship than to show someone you truly care about what he/she has to say, over all else."

If you have forgotten to turn off the device and it buzzes to signify a new message has arrived, make a point of bringing it out and silencing it, without looking at the incoming message, Mr. Prentice advises. "Again, this signifies the importance of the conversation at hand."

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.

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