We all know them: BlackBerry addicts.
They glance down at their laps during lunches, dinners, meetings. Their hands are hidden by a table but their upper arms are moving ever so slightly—enough that you know what their thumbs are doing.
My husband is one of the worst. I often wake up in the morning—before 6 a.m.—to see him lying on his back, his face awash in a neon green glow, his thumbs typing furiously at the contraption just inches above his nose.
One night, during a special holiday dinner at arguably the nicest restaurant in our city, I busted him checking his messages. It was Saturday night. We were dropping well over a hundred bucks on the meal.
You have a problem, I told him.
I was just making sure the babysitter hadn’t called, he lied. An addict will do and say anything to get his fix.
Of course, he is hardly alone. I had lunch with an old friend recently. Several times during our meal, she checked her messages. At first I acted like I didn’t notice. Then, I just asked her: Are you a BlackBerry addict?
Yes, she admitted. Totally. None of these e-mails are even important. I haven’t answered one message that couldn’t have waited until I got back to the office.
At least she knows she has a problem. That’s the first step, right?
The term CrackBerry is becoming standard, if humorous, nomenclature, as more people get hooked on checking e-mail on portable devices. All joking aside, it can become a problem, changing the dynamics of marriages and families, infringing on vacation time and certainly creating the need for new social etiquette rules. I have never had a BlackBerry, so if I were to offer advice, it might be like a teetotaler talking at an AA meeting. I therefore decided to ask experts for advice on two things: how to know if you have a problem and how to use a BlackBerry in a socially acceptable way.
First, I asked Norman Epstein, a professor in the Department of Family Studies at the University of Maryland, how to know if your BlackBerry has become a CrackBerry. Often, he says, the other people in your life will be the first to identify your problem.
“It may be one’s child complaining, ‘Dad, you’re always using that thing and you don’t listen to me,’” Epstein says.
Another warning sign, Epstein says, is if you feel anxiety when you are unable to check it.
So what’s the impact of over-doing the BlackBerry? “A person has just so much capacity to pay attention to multiple things,” Epstein says. “The ability to multi-task is probably more limited than some people think. As a result, when the person believes that he or she can use the BlackBerry while spending time with children and other significant relationships, the relationships suffer from the amount of time diverted to the BlackBerry.”
But how does a BlackBerry user know when he or she has crossed the line from efficient to rude? For this question, I called on Leah Ingram, author of The Everything Etiquette Book: A Modern-Day Guide to Good Manners.
She acknowledges there could be a professional in a high-stress job—maybe a doctor—who has to check e-mails constantly. However, she says, “at dinner, at a party, at your kids’ school play, it is a rare occurrence that it would be necessary to have that in your hand, checking messages.”
It is also rude to use it during a work meeting or presentation, she says. You are sending the presenter one message: I am more important than you.
But isn’t it also rude to not respond promptly to e-mail? “Really, I think you’ve got two to four hours to get back to someone on e-mail before they start wondering if you are flaking out on them,” Ingram says.
And my last expert? A recovering addict. Though he will remain nameless, he’s a thirty-six-year-old who is changing his ways for love.
“I used to be a chronic user, but after my girlfriend moved in, my usage went down,” he says. “We agreed I’d keep the BlackBerry turned off on the weekends.”