It all began at a conference. A keynote speaker had just finished her address. Microphones awaited comments and questions. A woman walked up to a microphone, iPhone in hand, and stated that during the talk she had been checking her e-mail and wanted to share with the audience some information she had just received related, tangentially, to the theme of the keynote address, to which she had not paid much attention.
I waited for gasps or at least tut-tuts to emanate from the crowd, but no one batted an eye. In fact, most of my colleagues were too busy with their own online presence to even notice what seemed to me like some seriously bad behavior.
Clearly the definition of good behavior is being renegotiated in the academic world just as it is everywhere else. A BBC poll found that one-third of 5,300 workers check their e-mail during meetings. Checking your in-box or your Twitter feed while someone else is talking is also going on in boardrooms and high-school classrooms, at dinner tables and on walks with friends. As David Carr, who writes the Media Equation column at The New York Times, dryly points out: “Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.”
Yes, we are all increasingly incapable of disconnecting. But it seems particularly ironic that academics, who make a living talking and hoping someone is paying attention, no longer think it is important if they themselves pay attention. As a sociologist, not Ms. Manners, I understand that what constitutes “good” behavior is always a social negotiation. Manners are a battlefield. We either prove our “distinction” and thereby signify that we have high levels of capital—economic, cultural, social—or “disgrace” ourselves and signal our impoverished status.
In his History of Manners, Norbert Elias argues that what may have been good manners in 1500 are the behaviors of the truly uncouth just a few hundred years later. We no longer blow our noses into the tablecloth or let gas escape freely to signify our courtliness. Instead, we show that we are thoroughly civilized subjects by controlling our bodily gases and fluids in the most disciplined of manners and thereby display our civility.
For Elias, manners represent a “civilizing process,” a way for the power of the state to control us from the inside out. Yet because manners must be performed in front of an audience, they are also always a site of potential mobility. Manners are a game at which we can win or lose.
The introduction of smartphones and other technologies is allowing us to engage in a rather epic contest to decide what behaviors mean we’re “good” colleagues. It used to be listening, or at least pretending to listen, to others. Now department chairs openly check e-mails while running a meeting, deans are clearly not paying attention at faculty meetings as they too complete “minor tasks” online, and professors text, tweet, Facebook, and e-mail while their colleagues read off committee reports or give papers at conferences.
In my very informal sample of 31 academic friends and friends of friends, 40 percent said they let students use smartphones, laptops, and/or tablets in class, but also admitted in a separate question that they think the students are doing course work with the devices only part of the time. Those same colleagues think their students are using computers in their classes to check Facebook or e-mail, and are distracting not only themselves but other students as well. Most of the professors surveyed do not allow those devices in class except in very controlled circumstances.
Nonetheless, half of those academics I heard from admitted they sometimes use the devices during meetings. When asked why, they said they used them to read materials related to the meeting, but they also checked e-mail and Facebook, texted, tweeted, and read Web sites unrelated to the meeting. In other words, we professors behave exactly like our students. Although half of us said we think doing so is rude, we admit to doing it anyway.
We do have rules for not paying attention. The academics surveyed said they multitask only when the meeting is big enough that no one notices, only when it’s a mindless task like deleting e-mails, only when the agenda item doesn’t relate to them, only when the meeting is stupid and pointless, only when they need to check on kids, and only when they really “needed to.”
We who rely on people listening to us no longer believe we have to listen when someone else is speaking. Of course, academics not listening is not completely new. Long before the age of constant connectivity we daydreamed during a boring talk, passed snarky notes to colleagues, and doodled images of our dog over and over again.
In other words, we continue to do what we’ve always done, but now we do it far more openly and with the aid of technologies that allow us to pretend we are being hyperproductive. “Hey, Mom, look at me! I can text and listen to this talk.” But can we really multitask?
Numerous studies show it’s nearly impossible to do more than one thing at a time. For instance, one study found that multitasking caused a 40-percent decrease in efficiency and that creativity and long-term memory suffer as well.
A 2012 study by Zheng Wang and John M. Tchernev in the Journal of Communication asks why we continue to multitask when it actually stops us from getting things done. The answer is that multitasking provides us with emotional satisfaction even as it decreases our ability to do things, or at least to do them well.
In other words, if you want to post the latest plot twists of Homeland onto Facebook while you’re watching it, go right ahead. You’ll feel better. But if you think you can pay attention at a talk and check your e-mail, you’re actually not doing either task well and yet, paradoxically, still feeling better about yourself than if you hadn’t multitasked. As one of my survey respondents said: “I simply do not have enough hours in the day to do everything, and sometimes multitasking is a near necessity.”
In the university today, the best manners we can display are not about being attentive to one another, but rather about being “productive.” At a time when Americans work more hours than residents of any other industrialized country, we professors show our good manners by displaying our ability to do more and more things for work.
And so, as Sartre said, “nothing has changed and yet everything is different.” Or at least I think he did. You’d better look it up on your iPhone while you finish reading this, and text your kids about whether they have a ride home from school while you send that e-mail off to your chair and finish grading those papers.
Laurie Essig is an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection (Beacon Press, 2010).