That Clicking Sound You Hear May Be the Sound of Someone Thinking

You know that guy on your team who is always online during staff meetings? The one who, at meetings, has his laptop going and is constantly tapping keys? Even when the president is there?

Maybe he’s just taking good notes? But, aha! There is that little “click” every time he hits the CTRL button. He’s clearly sending e-mail or browsing the Web. So annoying!

What do you say we get rid of that clicking sound? Not by stopping that guy, but by producing (or modifying) laptops so that the CTRL button doesn’t make a sound. It doesn’t have to, you know. The designers just think we like (or need) to hear it.

While we’re doing that, maybe we need to think about what it is that is annoying us. Is it the sound, or our suspicion that they’re not as fully “into us” and what we’re meeting about as they should be?

Maybe we should get rid of the suspicion? Notice the title of this article: “That Clicking Sound You Hear May Be the Sound of Someone Thinking.” Well, more and more that is a true statement.

I’m a little more sensitive than I used to be to people who don’t like it when others are typing on a laptop during a meeting. I still think it’s counterproductive for people not just accept it as a fact of modern life, especially on fully wired campuses, and get on with it. A lot of people nowadays can’t take handwritten notes that are later legible, even to themselves. It’s a fact of life. But I do know that some people are annoyed and I am torn about whether to accommodate them with my own behaviors. Sometimes I do, even when it clearly reduces my own functionality if I do not use my laptop during a meeting.

I keep engaging people in discussion about it, and as you will read below, I can understand some of what they feel, but I’m hoping that others will learn to accommodate this, just like I have learned to accommodate people who speak in long, connected sentences and build on conclusions from premises introduced 3-4 minutes earlier without pausing to give me a chance to address those initial premises.

I wouldn’t ask someone not to take notes, or to refer to notes or references in a stack of articles during a discussion, and to me it’s about the same thing to ask me not to use my laptop. I know that when I am doing that in a meeting, someone speaking to the group may not be getting facial visual cues in response to their statements, but that’s not a whole lot different than being on a conference call. And I’ve been in too many meetings where, even though I was online throughout, I spoke more than anyone else did, to harbor any misgivings about not properly paying attention.

I was flying back to Ann Arbor from Seattle as I begin to write this. (Finished it in Washington, D.C.) I had just involved in a day of face to face final job interviews for executive director candidates, for a group that I currently serve on the board of. All of the search committee members are folks from academia: A business officer, a media person, two professors, an architect working in higher ed, and a top level administrator reporting directly to his president. I intended to keep my laptop closed for most of the time, and I did, at least for the first interview.

But the administrator didn’t. In fact, “Jim” looked like I must ordinarily look, with his laptop open all the time and his face in it, typing and clicking. I could see that, from the perspective of someone in a meeting not engaged with my laptop, that being so engaged can appear a little annoying to someone who isn’t also doing it. But, since I ordinarily multitask in such meetings, I also was able to notice that “Jim” was not missing anything. He chimed in with questions at the appropriate times and never missed a discussion cue.

So, I decided to sit beside “Jim” during the next interview. By doing so, I was able to occasionally glance over and see what he was doing – and he was in tune with the discussion. Sure, he was opening and responding, quickly, to e-mail messages of all sorts. But he was also engaging Wikipedia, Google News, Google Images, and a host of other Web services to enhance his perspective on the conversation.

While one candidate mentioned his pioneering achievements in environmental work using RFID tags, “Jim” was reading about RFID tags and then looking at some of the candidate’s published articles. During another candidate’s questioning, “Jim” was able to ask a penetrating question about his run for a city council office a decade earlier – an item that had not even appeared on the candidate’s resume or supporting materials.

When we were done for the day, I questioned “Jim” about this, noting that I sometimes take flak for such connectivity during meetings. I specifically asked him whether this was a problem for him when he was in meetings with his president and he said that it was not a problem because his university’s president also uses the Web as a part of his brain and is also constantly referencing it via his laptop.

We commiserated over the years we still had to wait before we could use Google and everything else as brain extensions without having to make noises on a laptop keyboard and concluded that the one thing that would make the behavior less annoying to others, short of no longer doing it, would be to find a way to make the CTRL key silent.

So, shortly I am going to get some sharp instruments and poke around inside my Dell Latitude X1 to see if I can make the CTRL key stop making noise; without making it stop working. If I succeed, then at least that clicking sound when I close a file or open an incoming e-mail message won’t send the signal to someone else that might make them suspect I am not paying attention: Because I am!

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