Every day we’re on the phone with people, and we notice they are going through emails, or surfing the web, while talking with us.  Everyone I speak with has this experience, regularly.

How do we notice this?  Because we notice that the person we are speaking with is not engaged with us. We notice that the flow of conversation is broken.  We notice that the other person has no idea what we just said. We hear the clicks of their keyboard.

I wrote a post back in December called, Are you here? in which I encouraged readers to call people out if they are not paying attention during a conversation, particularly a phone conversation.

My brother Phil and I were talking tonight, and we were trying to decide on a clever way to do this.  We were looking for a short, powerful phrase to say to people that would have the meaning of, “Hey, are you with me?  I’d love it if you would stop looking at your computer screen and focus on our conversation!”

We first thought about yelling out, “Slimy!” because for years we’ve pronounced the word “emails” backwards as “slimy,” as in, “I’m going to go fire up my laptop and check my slimy.”  But, I know, that’s way to obscure. (Oh, did I forget to mention, Phil and I have a very strange habit of speaking backwards with each other?  We’ve been doing it since we were little kids. Can you see how “emails” would be “slimy?”)

Do you have any great suggestions for this call out?

It might be as simple as, “Are you with me?”

Or, “Is now a good time to talk?”

Or, “Would you like me to wait?”

Or, “If you’re transcribing this conversation, be sure to spell my name correctly.  It’s S-T-E ..”

Or, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” just to test if they are listening.

I’d love your suggestions.  (And, of course, if you ever notice me doing “slimy” while we’re on the phone, you have my permission to call me out, with whatever phrase you want.)


  • Shaun O'Neill
    Jun 15, 2009 - 03:29 am

    Got to fess up that I’m incredibly bad at doing this, and I’m going to stop it…because it is down right rude.

    I have a little fun when I’m on the otherside. Usually comments like, “and then the aliens thrw me out of the space ship. It was horrific”

  • Smilin' Phil
    Jun 15, 2009 - 07:56 am

    One reason Steve wrote this is that I was being slimy towards him not too long ago.

  • Ed Markey
    Jun 15, 2009 - 08:07 am

    Many of my phone calls, particularly to people I don’t speak with regularly, begin with “Have I caught you at a bad time?” It gives them an out right away. And if he/she says, “No, now’s a good time,” then they’ve committed to being engaged.

    It also makes it easier to take the first off-ramp if they go back to email, as in “I guess I did catch you at a bad time…”

  • Dan Gunter
    Jun 15, 2009 - 09:18 am

    Sometimes, my family and friends laugh at me actually, because when I am on the phone, I usually walk outside or away from the computer. In all honesty, I did not develop this habit with the INTENTION of avoiding the distractions of the computer, paperwork, etc. I actually developed it because for some reason cell phones and cordless phones don’t always work well in my home, which is also where my office and video editing suite are located, so I typically step outdoors. Plus, I tend to think better when I am moving around (probably why I enjoy public speaking — always on my feet, which is how I think better.) But I quickly discovered that I stay more engaged in and focused on the conversation if I’m not even in the room with the computer (or even another person, if possible.)

    At the risk of sounding rude, if I hear the other person typing away on a keyboard, or they are stopping to talk with someone else frequently, I will just plainly ask “Is this a bad time? You can call me back when you’re done with whatever else it is you’re busy with if you’d like.” Or I’ll offer to call them back. It depends on who originally called whom.

    I think it is ESPECIALLY rude when the person who originated the call is the one engaging in other activities. If someone calls me and then I hear them engaging in other activities, it makes me feel like saying “Look, YOU called ME. By doing so, YOU asked for MY attention. Don’t ask ME for something YOU are not willing or prepared to give yourself.” I don’t say it, but I sure think it.

    If I’m too busy with other things to give someone else my full attention, I sure don’t have time to call them. So I don’t. If I absolutely have to due to time, then other things just have to wait until the conversation ends.

    I’m not saying I’m the best at it, but you can ask my clients what usually happens when I need to give them a piece of information or do something during the conversation that requires the use of the computer. They’ll tell you that I’ll apologize and say “Hang on, I had stepped away from the computer, I’m on may to it right now.”

  • Greg
    Jun 15, 2009 - 10:41 am

    Here is what I’ve been doing.

    I read the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. He talks about how one needs to “get off the grid” in order to come up with the best ideas for a presentation. When I notice the “clickety-clack” and the paused responses during a call, I simply say, “are you on the grid?” Typically people don’t know what that means so they ask. I then tell them that I’ve been working on getting “off the grid” when I’m talking to someone so that I can engage them fully. I tell them that it makes me a lot more effective during the call AND at what I was trying to do “on the grid”.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jun 18, 2009 - 14:40 pm

      Greg – I love “Are you on the grid!!!!!!”

  • Judith Ellis
    Jun 16, 2009 - 11:44 am

    Steve – I love your posts. I get them in my inbox regularly and usually read them all. They are thoughtful and often funny. I also love the personal touch of many of them. I laughed my head off reading this post, as I suppose many people did. We have had it done to us or are sometimes guilty of doing it ourselves.

    My siblings and I are very close and we talk often. The other day while talking to my brother, Haywood, after about 20 minutes into it he said, “I know I caught you at a bad time.” Well, this caught my attention. He had asked a question and I was reading a text that had just came through. (Does it matter that it was from a client?) I don’t have any suggestions, but I most certainly have more than a few in my arsenal for the next time it happens to me. Good post!

    Speaking of this, I was partially listening to some new show the other day as I was also writing and one commentator got my attention. He spoke of all the noise that’s out there that divides our attention in such a way that we are not actually engaged in anything. Twitter was the topic of conversation. I think he had a valid point which reminded me of much of what you often write of here.

    I have long been concerned about bad listening and interaction skills that could be re-enforced with every tweet and text, especially for some young people who may not distinguish between the various kinds of communications, namely the ones required in professional environments, written or spoken. Through our communications we enforce habits. No?

    Last week I got a text meant for someone else. Actually, I got more than a few for two days straight as my phone number had been given to someone else by mistake. I had recently changed carriers and changed my number over. I saved this particular text because I really wanted to write about this. I had texted the person back to inform her that she had the wrong number. This was her response:

    “Wel u txtd ma fne lstnite talkn bot diz ebony n diz yo new numba.”

    Reading the text initially, I was shocked. But I suppose I used slang and jargon when I was growing up, though I don’t ever remember doing such–especially not to this extent. I wrote the presumably teenager back. Turns out she was 16. I asked. I couldn’t help but to wonder if we are forming and re-enforcing bad habits. Or, if young people by and large can actually distinguish between what is proper for certain environments and what isn’t.

    Maybe their brains are running on two tracks simultaneously all the time, one which says that this is proper syntax and spelling and the other isn’t. Maybe they know which to use based on their environments. I hope so! But I also wonder if many kids even know the difference and how this will play out in environments all across the country, especially work environments.

    I know I digress a bit, but I guess this has to do with engagement and how we do so with each other other. I wonder if today’s technology re-enforces DISENGAGEMENT and bad habits that will be detrimental in the future in work environments everywhere.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jun 18, 2009 - 14:44 pm

      Judith – interesting story … I think it has a lot to do with engagement. I, also, get a bit bothered by the distracting chatter (and monologuing) on Twitter, even though I know it is politically incorrect and unhip to say anything about Twitter but, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing, life-changing thing, and if you criticize it you just don’t get it.” As for teenage texting, I guess the question is whether it makes for better – or worse – communication.

  • Judith Ellis
    Jun 20, 2009 - 11:08 am

    Steve – I laughed aloud at your tweet above; the rationale is astute. Our stupidity, and lack of humility in accepting such, is often the fault of others. Isn’t it? Although, I have been thinking a lot about Twitter and Youtube considering what’s going on in Iran, but my gut feelings still remain the same. There is no doubt that technology is powerful; it’s probably all about how it is used that makes the difference.

    Bill Maher made a crack about Twitter last night essentially saying the the situation in Iran has lengthened its life. I laughed, though the situation on the ground there is nothing to laugh about. It is good that the world is receiving images; technology as such clamps down on injustice or at least makes the world aware of it instantly.

    Maher also criticized the parent of the teen who won that texting award after producing some 14,000 text a month I think it was. I was outraged that such an award was given and it did not sit well with me that companies would encourage such and that parents are not being more mindful of what their children are doing.

  • david
    Jul 13, 2009 - 09:43 am


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