Being Present in a World of Distraction

No Blackberry On a recent trip to New York City I was (yet again) struck by how millions of people crammed onto a small island can be so efficient at isolating themselves from millions of their fellow humans who are literally inches away from them. I’ve also noticed the same thing in London, and to some degree in smaller cities, like my native Binghamton. Walk down the sidewalk through Times Square, or get a coffee at one of the ubiquitous Starbucks in New York, and you’ll see more people than not with their noses stuck in a Blackberry, iPhone or other communication device—often texting—completely oblivious to those around them.

The purpose of my trip was to review conferencing facilities at two hotels. My company hosts trade show events and I was there to scout out new locations. I needed to see the spaces in person, take measurements, shoot some videos and talk with the person in charge of events so I could communicate just how we want to use the space for which we will pay many (many!) thousands of dollars. I made appointments at each venue several weeks in advance to be sure I could get access to view the entire space at both hotels on the same trip.

I turned up 30 minutes early for my first appointment, but it took me 15 minutes of false starts to find the banqueting and conference office (not a good sign). My contact graciously met with me immediately, even though I was early. From the moment we started to talk, I noticed she had a Blackberry sitting on the table and it was buzzing and lighting up—constantly. As we started to tour the facilities she seemed to be in a hurry. I wanted to take some quick videos of the rooms with my Flip camera but she was rushing me around (with the Blackberry in hand) saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll send you pictures for each of the rooms.” Well excuse me, I’ve just traveled four hours by bus, having made an appointment more than two weeks in advance, specifically to take my time and look at this place! Much to her dismay, I would not be rushed.

Of particular interest for me was to see how we might fit the desired number of exhibitor booths into the allotted space. She said that she would use a special program to diagram it out for me “later” and email it. As my tour continued she actually responded to text messages on the Blackberry, even while we walked and as she talked with me! This behavior, of constantly checking her Blackberry, and telling me, “Yes, I’ll send that later by email” was to me, rude.

At the conclusion of my tour, as we sat in the hotel lobby with me asking a final round of questions, it dawned on me that we had not reviewed the room where lunch would be served—no doubt overlooked because of the speed of the tour. So I asked her to show me. I don’t think she liked it, but she pasted on a smile and we went to look. And then, with a handshake and a wave she was off, looking yet again at her Blackberry.

Contrast that with my second and final stop of the day at a different hotel. When I arrived, the front desk check-in area was crowded beyond belief and I was certain it would take me 20 minutes just to speak with someone. So I went wandering to see if I could locate the conference and banqueting office myself. I came across a hotel worker who was playing with a young child who had cornered her. The parents came along and apologized but the young lady said “no worries” with a genuine smile, and then she turned her attention to me. I told her who I was looking for and she said, “Let me go call her for you right now, she’ll need to come meet you in the lobby.” And she did just that. Less than five minutes later I was on my way with the conference manager at the second hotel.

The conference manager showed me various meeting rooms, taking time to wait for me as I used my Flip video camera, answering all of my questions. She was unhurried and focused her full attention on me. For a question I had about the exhibit space, we needed to talk to the person in charge of catering and setup, and she got him there—in person—within two minutes. I told him how many booths I would need and the general layout I had in mind for the exhibit space. He disappeared and 15 minutes later came back with a printout of a floor plan for just what I wanted! The people at this second hotel were courteous, helpful, treated me like the high-paying customer I am :-), and oh yes, not a Blackberry or cell phone in sight from either of them during the entire tour and discussions, all of which lasted almost an hour.

The personnel from the second hotel were “there”—meaning they were present, with me, talking with me and focusing on me and filtering out “the world” as they did so. And I appreciate that.

If you’re in business, or meeting with a friend, or whatever you do in life, this is an encouragement to be “present” with other people. Ditch the habit of constantly checking the Blackberry. Unless you’re a doctor or someone who holds life and death responsibilities, turn off the Blackberry when you’re with someone else and give them your undivided attention. Do that, and you’ll set yourself apart—and above—most other people.