One more way to be rude

Thanks to modern technology, I now have one more way to seem rude while actually paying close attention. I made this discovery when my friend Jan invited me to the annual meeting of the Connecticut River Watershed Council. Come on, she said, It will be interesting. I’m feeling more social these days so I decided to go . . .

The first part was kind of neat, because free food was involved. We started on a big outdoor patio that contained several tables covered with edible treats. I didn’t know any of the people except Jan, but I did recognize chocolate strawberries when I saw them, so I went at it. A few minutes later I was sated and it was time to go inside to listen to the speakers. Five years ago I’d never have gone near such a thing, but now I resolved to give it a try. I went in and sat down with Jan, her friend, and a table full of strangers.

I nodded politely and sat fairly still as I waited for the program to begin. I can do that, as long as I don’t have to wait too long. Within a few minutes, the crowd settled down and things got going. I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear; I just hoped it would be interesting. I was not disappointed.

The first speaker worked for an outfit called Covanta. I didn’t know who or what Covanta was, but I paid attention as she began to speak. She said her firm was in the business of converting trash to energy. How do they do that, I wondered? In the past I’d have sat there and listened and pondered, but now I can be pro-active. I whipped out the iphone and went on the hunt.

The speaker’s voice faded to the background as I began reading, though I looked up from time to time to make sure she and I were still in the same places.

My first search took me to Covanta’s website, where I learned who they were and what they do. Moments later I was reading about the Bristol trash-to-electricity facility. Being a geek, I was captivated by the descriptions of the burner and boiler installations. That sent me on yet another Google search. . .

As I searched at 100MPH the speaker plodded along at a walking pace. I continued to glance up, but very little was happening. The speaker droned on, and the audience sat quietly. I was quiet too, but inside my mind was churning. Luckily the mental clatter was contained by the flesh around my head and ears.

I sifted through her spoken words for phrases to Google on the iphone. Within moments a description of the latest high efficiency burners was waiting for me on the screen. I read it and had a new appreciation for Covanta, a company that I’d never even heard of a few minutes before.

I looked back up in plenty of time for the speaker’s concluding remarks. When the time came for applause I joined in as enthusiastically as anyone else, fortified by my enhanced understanding.

That’s when I realized how my tablemates perceived my behavior. That’s awfully rude, to just ignore the speaker and work on your computer. But is that really what happened? I think not. The speaker was there as a representative of Covanta, and her job was to inform the public about her company and make them feel good about it. I’ll bet she succeeded better with me than most anyone else in the room, thanks to my little iphone.

I’ll give you some examples . . .
I learned what Covanta does, and where they are based.
I now know what a waterfall furnace is.
I know Covanta’s Hartford plant runs steam turbines at 880psi
I am even familiar with the inspection standards for boilers that run at those pressures.

Do you know any of those things? And how many other people in the room got that out of her talk? I would argue that our speaker achieved her goals better with me than with anyone else there (unless there was another geek with an iphone.)

I have always gotten restless in situations like that because my mind moves faster than any speaker’s voice. Knowing that, I don’t usually go to presentations. But the iphone changed everything for me. Instead of sitting there with questions in my mind, I was free to search and explore while generally guided by the speaker’s words. It was great.

If the purpose of a lecture is to impart knowledge, iphone enhanced listening is a great success. Unfortunately, the other people in the room don’t see it that way. They see me looking at a pocket computer and imagine all sorts of things. Some believe I’m looking at Russian Dream Girls. Others think I’m playing Donkey Kong. No one guessed the truth.

A few people in the crowd might have seen me and thought . . . he’s acting a bit autistic. And maybe I was. But if that’s true, it’s catchy. More and more people are bringing iphones to events, and it’s one more way in which technology is making all of us act a little more autistic at times in exchange for enhanced productivity.

Every time we answer questions with a pocket browser we miss the chance to raise our hands and engage another human. Every time we write an email we lose out on a face to face conversation. At the same time, the benefits of “electronic augmentation” are undeniable. But where does it lead?


smauge said…
Asperger's or not John, I don't think you're the only one doing this these days! Hand held internet devices are bringing any information we instantly want right in to the palm of our hand. Some people are going to use it, some people are going to "tut-tut" it. I fall into the former catagory. I guess the way out of the social dilemma would be to be sharing your discoveries with your table mates instead of hiding it away?
Morriss Partee said…
John - Excellent post. Thanks for bringing out this new aspect to presentations. There's another aspect to presentations in our networked world in regards to iPhones, Blackberries, and that is to tweet out to the world the highlights from the speaker. Some consider that also to be rude, while many people appreciate having their remarks broadcast worldwide in real time. I fall into the latter camp. I feel you are doing the presenter a favor by letter your network know the highlights of their presentation.
Unknown said…
Hey. Send her a link to this post. I think she'll be very surprised.
Diane Hitchens said…
John I wonder what you would think if when you were giving one of your talks someone was sitting in front of you using their I-phone to access iformation on your lastest book? If it was me I would feel that they weren't paying attention to what I was saying.
cath c said…
if it was really helping you enhance the presentation, go for it. i'm only bugged when others are using their handhelds when in a direct conversation with me. or endangering on the road...
Kate said…
Not having seen many iphones are presentations it is hard for me to judge how obtrusive or not it is. But it seems if you have paid to be at a talk you have the choice to listen or not. Some people just need to fidget. Even if not paid, well , it's up to the speaker to get peoplke's attention. If they're not being engaging enough, people's minds are goign to wander. They will anyway.
gina said…
I totally understand, I too have aspergers and I also have an Iphone that goes everywhere i go. I know they probably didn't realize that you were actually on topic, but i would have been doing exactly what you did, wrong or not, I would be doing what you were. I starve for the information as it is being presented, so waiting would be unlikely to happen. And as far as someone doing that to you during a presentation or speech, i suppose if you knew they were researching your book, then you wouldn't consider it rude, also you would understand their need to research it NOW!!
mama edge said…
Ditto Diane Hitchens. Would it bother you as a speaker? Has any particular audience behavior ruffled your feathers?
Unknown said…
During talks like the one you attended, John, I try to bring something with me that allows me to fidget: a pen, paper clip, coin, or whatever is small enough to bring in my pocket and doesn't make too much noise.

I personally don't think it's rude to websurf on a handheld device for more information about the topic, but I know that other people consider it as such. For the comfort of all involved, I refrain from using mine. Granted, the tempo of the speaker may be too slow for me, or the topic may be completely uninteredting (if it's a mandatory work meeting), but I need to fidget to keep my body busy so my brain can process.
Jack Hutchinson said…
Be the presenter. 40 people seated before you. You've worked hours preparing for this 45 minute presentation. It's a topic close to your heart. You look up. No eyes on you. Everyone on his iPhone - doing you-don't-know-what. 42 minutes to go. Can you stay centered? Impassioned? Will you do it again? How's your confidence?
John Robison said…
Here and on Facebook several of you have asked how I would feel if I were the speaker and I saw someone in the audience poking at his iphone.

As it happens, I have faced that situation several times.

On more than one occasion I have looked at someone doing that and they have volunteered an answer. "I'm tweeting about the event," or "I'm looking something up."

The geekier the crowd I am addressing the more likely that situation is to occur.

Other times I do not connect with the person and I really don't know what to think because I don't know what they are doing, but such people are only a tiny fraction of most audiences.

In general, if the audience seems inattentive I think the speaker should take that as a sign that he's moving too slow, or he's not entertaining enough. That's how I interpret such observations at my own talks, and I've been reasonably successful addressing different kinds of crowds.
gina said…
Awesome response John!
Mark Ty-Wharton said…
I love this scenario and... ahem, on Friday my Tai Chi teacher was explaining a move was all about playing a Chinese musical instrument. There was a lot of debate in the room as to how many strings it has. People have often frowned at me for reading things on my phone while he is instructing. This time, it was surprise on their faces (I think :-) when I was able to say "it has 4 strings, does anyone want to see a picture of one?"
Like you, I have a diagnosis of Aspergers. Like you I was diagnosed late in life. And, like you I am following a career path as an author and speaker.
I am particularly intereted in new ways of thinking and future social trends which make it easier for we aspergerians to function on this planet :-)
Nice to meet you...
Lee said…
As someone with Aspergers who also has had to make public addresses, I don't mind at all if the audience seems distracted. As a matter of fact that means less chance of an awkward "locking of the eyes" event. I usually try and look over them anyways, like at hair/foreheads etc. PDA's of any type are a great boon to those of us with AS, as they give me a place to focus my attention if I don't feel like focussing on your gaze.
Maybe they thought you were just texting to friends or whatever and not realizing that you were supplementing what the speaker had to say with info from the Net?
I will remember this story.

It will help me remember to make sure that I do not misjudge someone who appears not to be listening, if I ever need to give a speech.

The fact that you glanced upwards at the speaker periodically shows you were listening, I think.

I took non-stop notes in college classes and may have appeared this way also. -Enlightening post, thank you for sharing it.
Guilty, I was on FaceBook when my Mom called this morning. "You sound distracted!" I was. It's not always good, though you were engaged in relevant info. Are you SURE it wasn't Russian dream girls though?
I get what you are saying John, and I agree, we never know what a person is doing, or what their reasons are, and are mistaken if we even try to make assumptions.

That being said, if I were the speaker, I would have felt bad if I'd seen you seemingly ignoring me.

Thanks for the reminder never to take anything personally.
I'd be flattered if somebody was taking notes old school style. I'd lose confidence if somebody was clicking away on a phone. Interesting to note, if and adult takes a call or is texting at say, a restaurant, I assume it "must be important". If I see a kid doing the same I think it's rude and I question how they were raised. Why do I fall to this double-standard? I don't know. Maybe it's how I was raise

October 25
Valmommy said…
John, I do this all the time, and in fact, I have to remind myself to listen, because I get so lost in my searching, I do tend to forget what the conversation was about. Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one.
DJ Kirkby said…
I am so similar to you, I do these things because to ignore the impluse would mean I got bored and when I'm bored it is obvious.I don't have an iPhone though just a Nokia E63 but it allows me to travel to where my mind needs to get at times like the one you described in your post.
Unknown said…
I think this is an excellent post on how people may think you're rude, but we Aspies do things differently.

I have my desktop computer in my living room, and I keep it on all the time so if some random thought pops into my head, or lets say I'm watching a movie and recognize the actor/actress (but not their name) I just jump up, head over to the computer, and google/wikipedia until my brain is satisfied...
Jenn said…
Hello John, my name is Jenn Lynch, I am a Freshman in Sussex County Community College in New Jersey. I have a project in one of my classes, where I have to choose a person that I personally feel is successful. My little brother is 8 years old and Autistic, I came across your book in Target and decided to buy it. I loved your book, my brother is non-verbal and it really helped me understand him. I wanted to choose you as my person for my project. I really feel that you are very successful for overcoming what you have in life, and it would be awesome if I could do my project on you. I would have to ask you some questions, so I could put your answers into my project. If you have the time, my email address is if your interested, send me an email and I will respond promptly. Thank you very much for your time. - Jenn Lynch
Anonymous said…
Excellent article! So well-written!! I just love the way you write!!! Indeed. Where does it lead? I think it's great that you chose to honor the speaker's intent rather than serve protocol to honor her ego. It's honest and way more flattering in reality.

I struggle with this question though. I go for the gold too and am often accused of being rude or hurtful when it's the exact opposite. If I weren't interested I wouldn't care so.. But I wonder if I don't pay enough attention to how the other person is receiving my behavior. And is it really all that important to be correct and accurate and efficient rather than to stop and take the time to consider another's feelings? Are my priorities right? Am I being hurtful when I could accomplish the same task without?

I have no idea. I just pose the question because your article brings it up. I'm sure I will continue to follow my interests when they call so... :D :D But I do wonder.

BTW, if people want to judge you they will. If not for that reason, then another. People who want to dislike you will find something that justifies it sooner or later so, it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks. Me thinks.

But how to be honest and authentic without really hurting anybody? THAT is the question! ;)
kevix said…
NT are focused on the social: watching the speaker and their movement, engaged in what they say, the gestures, the slides, clapping when needed. Aspies are knowledge-seeking and not too socially-focused, so they cogitate about what is being said, and what to know all the facts, so a nice net-connected device allows for that. So the NT speaker would have expected the people to listen to her/his speech and feel emotionally connected/influenced by it, ask questions afterwards based upon your trust of his/her facts, and google some other time. Aspies dont quite follow that pattern.

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