We Interrupt This Program

A close friend of mine was telling me about a particular work colleague who was in the habit of abandoning office meetings unexpectedly. His phone rings, he steps out. No “excuse me a second”, no apology on the return. He just leaves. This was starting to bother my friend.

“I see,” I told him. “You don’t like that he physically checks out.” This took a second to sink in.

You see, I know my friend’s work environment. It’s like mine: a small office and a tight group of co-workers who are casual with one another and all of whom juggle multiple projects. A meeting with people like this, even a focused meeting with a set agenda, means three or four people around a conference table and three or four laptops open. No one is shopping Amazon or checking Facebook. But everyone has a foot half out the door, still mentally occupied by something else, or willing to be if that something is urgent or interesting enough.

My friend hadn’t necessarily connected his colleague’s behaviour to his own. But to me, both are evidence of a culture in which interruption is acceptable and shared time is expendable.

When you have access to advanced technological tools to keep track of projects, deadlines, and correspondences, it almost feels silly sometimes to leave them behind and show up to a meeting with a notebook and a Bic pen. Yet, I do it a lot of the time. Now, hearing my friend’s reaction to his colleague, I think it should be every time. Because if I can’t really afford the time away from important tasks for a 30-minute meeting, I should just decline the invitation.

I think about this same discussion in a different context: at home. Dinner time is the one meeting in our calendar every night that all the members of our family have accepted. And as I’m sure is true of 99% of families, not everyone eats at the same pace.

Getting our two kids (2.5 and almost 4 at the time of this post) to finish their supper is a struggle. It may involve bargaining, threatening, even spoon feeding. But most of the time, it just means waiting. And some nights, my wife and I — with empty plates in front of us — would retreat to the little devices in our pockets and to email, Facebook, Twitter timelines, or box scores to kill time. But that’s all we were doing: killing time. All those things were just interruptions of the family meeting at hand; all evidence of a culture where our shared time was expendable.

We don’t want that to be our family culture, and we certainly don’t want that to be the message we send to our kids. So we’re making a much stronger effort now to “let our phones have a rest” or otherwise pull them out of our family meetings and de-emphasize their importance in our lives. The kids will inevitably become absorbed in devices as they get older. For now, I’d rather teach them to come to dinner with just their mental notebooks and Bic pens.

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