Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
If all meetings were run by Miss Conduct's beloved ex-boss, everyone in attendance would immediately turn off their cell phones and electronic devices for fear of missing an exciting new development in the discussion.
But meetings being what they usually are -- an excuse for the
perfect boss to hear his or her own mellifluous voice -- Miss Conduct recognizes that the mePhone or CrackBerry could be the only thing keeping you awake.
So how can polite employees use their time, presence and electronics wisely? Or rather, how can one do something so palpably rude -- say, turn away from the boss to check the electronic inbox -- in a polite way?
First, there is the issue that many meetings are about face-time, not information.
When you're at a meeting, your priority is on making sure your presence is helpful, even if it's just as part of an attentive audience. So where's the Tree-o-Palm in this scenario? Some people use a pencil. Some people use a laptop. As long as your boss is happy with your choice of aide-memoir, you can use it during meetings to keep track of your notes. Sometimes it's helpful to use both old school and new technologies -- it keeps your hands busy when things get really boring.
That said, calling attention away from whoever is running the meeting is never wise, so you may want to keep your chip-based life forms under the table or off to the side -- especially if yours is the coolest byte-box in the room.
So does that mean that it's OK to check your inbox during a staff meeting?
Miss Conduct regrets that unless an email you're expecting might change the course or duration of the meeting, no. Anything that helps keep you engaged in the proceedings is your friend, but anything that takes your mind out of the room is your enemy -- that includes your own tendency to check out when the going gets humdrum.
Silence Is Golden
Of course, having your tech toys in a meeting is a risk in itself, as the rude awakening of a cha-cha ringtone will attest. It always seems to occur right as your boss is intoning the critical detail.
So what should you do if you forget to turn off the ringer? First, Miss Conduct invites everyone who doesn't already know how to instantly silence their ringers to stop everything and figure it out, right now.
Look at your manual, check the manufacturer's Web site, ask a teenager if you have to -- but take a moment to get to know that thing you won't leave the house without. If it really is the lifeline you pretend it is, then you ought to know it the way a climber knows his ropes.
If you haven't already, experiment with the quietly useful vibrate setting
your next meeting. In addition to her personal communications devices, Miss Conduct's watch has three alarms and an hourly chime, all of which operate without alerting anyone but herself to her appointments.
This way, you can concentrate on the matter at hand, yet remain silently aware of your projects, needs and schedules.
Now if you've ignored the above advice, what you do when your phone audibly interrupts a meeting is the same thing that you do whenever you interrupt something.
Own up to it -- say "excuse me," and then make silencing it quick and unassuming, or make it entertaining, if you can pull it off.
Pretty soon, our communications devices will be even less visible to our colleagues -- watch and eyeglass projectors are next, and from there, our connectivity could get even more unobtrusive. So even as the etiquette is evolving alongside the technology for mobile communications, the principles remain the same.
Make those around you feel comfortable; treat everyone as if he or she were your boss; flatter, compliment, be entertaining. If you have a particularly funny photo on your phone or wallpaper, show it off if it's germane to the agenda, or before the meeting if it's not.
And don't just use your gadgets to take notes on what your leaders and comrades say -- make careful, quiet notes about their behavior and reactions. That way, when it's your turn to run the meeting, you'll truly know your audience -- and no one will want to look at the BlackBerry, even for a second.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.