Warning! Danger! “EDIs” are proliferating and you will almost certainly become a victim. I’m writing about Electronic Displays of Insensitivity. In our recent survey 89% of participants reported damaged relationships as a result of the insensitive or inappropriate use of technology. One woman described how out of pure frustration, she emailed her husband from across the dinner table just to get his attention as he “buried his nose in his smartphone.”

The results of our recent study are staggering. We at VitalSmarts surveyed 2,025 people in North America. Nine out of ten report that at least once a week their friends or family members stop paying attention to them because their attention is instead on some electronic device.

I witnessed at a restaurant four teenage girls texting and taking selfies and having electronic conversations with people who were obviously not present. They would then laugh and share what they had received with each other. This is an example of kids using electronic devices to have fun. That would not fit under the category of EDIs. However, what would fit is constant texting and emailing during a business meeting. Great confusion exists around whether it’s appropriate or not to read or send electronic communication during a business meeting. Some feel it’s essential to their job to stay in touch. Other’s feel this kind of multi-tasking “checks people out” of important information and discussions and is just plain rude. Our use of electronic devices is still so new that societal norms have not yet developed which are widely shared and deeply held. When norms like this are in flux, we see a wide range of behaviors and confusion about what is appropriate and what is not. In our survey 87% who responded felt that EDIs are worse and more common today than just a year ago.

Hopefully there are some areas where we could all agree. Some of the worst of EDIs are using these devices while driving, which last year resulted in more traffic deaths than did driving under the influence.

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with EDIs is do not let them become “undiscussables.” Rather, talk about what concerns you in a calm, respectful manner. Avoid demands and judgments. Instead, open up the conversation to explore how each other feels about it. In this way you can frequently come to mutual understanding and agreement about the use of electronic devices in the current situation. With talking about EDIs as a general principle, here are some specific strategies that most find useful.

1.Take the High Road. Some EDIs are urgent or necessary, so assume the best intentions. Empathetically say: “That sounds important. I can come back later if you need to respond to that call or text.”

2.Spell it Out. Specificity leads to results. Rather than making vague requests, set specific boundaries. Say: “We need your full attention in the meeting, so please turn off your cell phone.”

3.Illuminate the Impact. Describe the consequences of an EDI rather than blast your judgments about another’s moral compass. Say: “Excuse me, would you mind turning off your phone? I find your screen light distracting during this performance.”

 4.Take Heart. Don’t measure your influence by whether or not people immediately comply. Your intervention registers as disapproval and helps in the slow establishing of new norms.

 5.Let it Go. If you’ve employed every tactic and the offender fails to comply, let it go. Unless the situation will continue for an extended period of time or your safety is at risk, you’re better off just moving on.

I’ve found those who are most successful will establish clear expectations up front. One very effective manager said at the beginning of a team meeting, “I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I feel in the past our use of electronic devices has undermined our meeting’s effectiveness. I’d like to propose we turn off our devices for the duration of the meeting or step outside of the meeting if we feel something is urgent.” People then discussed her proposal and readily agreed. A new social norm had been created and the meetings were more productive as a result.

A final example comes from a very creative mother. Her daughter invited friends over for a party. The mother welcomed them with a smile and a basket. “I’m so glad you could come to the party. Please put your phone in the basket where you can pick it up when you leave. And in the meantime, go have fun; the party is in the backyard!”

A summary of the survey results follows. I hope it makes you more aware of situations where EDIs need to be addressed and helps you avoid these Electronic Displays of Insensitivity.