Public Displays of Insensitivity (PDIs): Why America Lacks Digital Manners

Provo, Utah, April 24, 2007– This month, Apple celebrated the sale of its one hundred millionth iPod. This may seem like a lot until you remember the 200 million cell phones, 103 million digital cameras, and 19 million PDAs sold in the last few years. And that’s just in the U.S. While these new technologies provide a “how did I ever live without it” degree of convenience and cool factor, they can also be intrusive, annoying and obnoxious when used inappropriately.

According to a recent VitalSmarts survey of more than 1,000 respondents, 91 percent of people regularly encounter public displays of insensitivity (PDIs) caused by a personal digital assistant (PDA). For example, the diner at the table next to you is talking loudly on his cell phone, your boss is reading her e-mail during your presentation, the teenager sitting in front of you at the theater is sending text messages throughout the movie and distracting you with the screen’s incessant glow—or how about this real-life scenario from a survey respondent: A guest at a funeral walks up to the open casket and begins snapping pictures with his cell phone. The list goes on.

So what do we do when confronted with such blatant PDIs? According to the survey, most of us do nothing. Results show that only one in ten people speak up to the offender, while the vast majority remain silent by either ignoring the behavior (37 percent), giving dirty looks or showing disapproval in other nonverbal ways (26 percent), or simply walking away (14 percent).

Joseph Grenny, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior (McGraw-Hill, 2005), says people avoid confronting PDI offenders because they simply don’t know how to speak up. They justify their silence in many ways, yet by saying nothing they are sending silent approval of insensitive and bad behavior (see graph).

“Current social norms dictate that you should be courteous and polite, and the advancement of new technologies should not trump these unwritten rules,” says Grenny. “To maintain a civil and courteous society, we must learn to confront PDIs in a way that addresses the bad behavior without sacrificing the respect each person deserves.”

Grenny offers the following tips for effectively confronting a PDI offender in a way that restores civility without damaging common courtesy:

  • Don’t rely solely on vague and prickly non-verbals. Your dirty looks, harrumphs, and shaking head are often weak and unclear messages that frequently provoke either no reaction or defensiveness and annoyance. When others fill in the blanks, they may attribute a worse message then you intended. Your goal is to get the offenders to reflect on how their behavior is obnoxious – not how you are obnoxious.
  • Speak softly, be tentative. Softer voices are less provocative, require the offenders to tune their attention to what you’re saying, and offer privacy to salvage the other person’s pride. If you do want to try a nonverbal first, employ tentative gestures like eye contact, a polite smile, or pointing to your ear rather than an angry stare. This tentative approach will make it easier to move to a more verbal intervention without escalating to conflict.
  • Be gracious and ask permission. When people are publicly insensitive, it’s generally because they are attending solely to their own needs. Start by apologizing for the inconvenience and then ask for their permission to listen to your request. “I don’t mean to put you out, but could I make a request?”
  • Share natural consequences. Never make demands without explaining them. People feel more obligated to oblige when your request appears reasonable. “Would you kindly talk a bit more quietly on your cell phone? I’m trying to read and am having a hard time focusing.”
  • Keep your smile but hold your ground. Maintain eye contact, stay silent, and let them respond. Don’t become aggressive.
  • Accept a “No” and move on with your life. If they either fail to comply or quickly return to the obnoxious behavior, let it drop. Unless the situation will continue for an extended period of time or your safety is at risk, you’re better off just moving on.


About VitalSmarts

An innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, VitalSmarts is home to multiple training offerings, including the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Confrontations®, Influencer Training™, and Change Anything Training™. Each course improves key organizational outcomes by focusing on high-leverage skills and strategies. The Company also has four New York Times best-selling books. VitalSmarts has helped 300 of the Fortune 500 and trained more than 800,000 people worldwide.

Note to Editor: Grenny and co-authors are available for interviews. Full survey results and hi-res graph are also available.

CONTACT: Brittney Maxfield of VitalSmarts, L.C. +1-801-724-6272

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.