The dangers of smartphone distraction at meetings, as seen in “Friends from College”

Sometimes you can find workplace lessons in the strangest of places. One of those places is the opening bit from the season finale of the Netflix “cringe comedy” series Friends from College (Rotten Tomatoes isn’t too fond of it, IMDb likes it a little better, I enjoyed it). The entire series is a set of object lessons in what not to do in life, one of which is particularly applicable to work meetings and smartphones.

In order to get what’s going on in the scene, I’ll need to provide a little background.

The scene features two characters from the series:

  • Ethan (played by Keegan-Michael Key): An author who’s had some critical acclaim, but little commercial success. He’s been convinced by his agent and publisher that his next project should be a “YA” (young adult) novel, a genre that he despises, with a supernatural theme.
  • Max (played by Fred Savage): Ethan’s friend from college and his literary agent. His relationship with his boyfriend Felix, whom he lives with (but with whom he did not go to college), is put under strain by his relationship with his college pals.

In an earlier drug-fueled all-night brainstorming session, Max helps Ethan come up with the basis for the novel: the protagonist of the novel, a girl named Jasmine, is a werewolf. Later on in the series, while visiting their alma mater, the two appear to come up with a key idea for the novel, putting Jasmine on trial for being a werewolf (based on historical werewolf trials), as well as the title for the book, Wolf Trials:

The series finale opens with Max getting Ethan’s Wolf Trials manuscript and gleefully going through the process of preparing it for publication. That’s where he runs into a major snag, which you’ll have to see for yourself in the clip below:

Max had spent a lot of his time at meetings on his smartphone, checking up on his recent ex-boyfriend’s post-breakup activity. In the process, he was completely checked out at all those meetings and missed the fact that a more popular YA author is writing an entire series of books with the same theme and title: Wolf Trials.

There’s an entire montage of Max on his phone at meetings that are all about the other author’s Wolf Trials series…

Max is too busy on his phone to notice that the meeting is about another author’s Wolf Trials novel. Click the photo to see it at full size.

Max walking obliviously past Wolf Trials concept art. Click the photo to see it at full size.

Wolf Trials posters? What Wolf Trials posters? Click the photo to see it at full size.

The best part of the montage is where Max is snapped out of his smartphone fugue state when his name is mentioned at the end of a question. When asked for a suggestion on how to end the other author’s novel, he says that it should end with a courtroom scene, which is the same way Ethan’s novel ends, then gets back to his smartphone:

The fact that he’s drinking from a Wolf Trials mug makes this bit perfect. Click the photo to see it at full size.

I’ve actually seen this in action, where someone in a meeting operated on autopilot, provided an answer that let them get back to what was on their screen, only to later discover that they’d committed them and their team to a lot of work on a ridiculously short timeline. One person’s inattention during a half-hour meeting had led to an entire team’s gnashing of teeth for the better part of a month.

And therein lies the biggest danger of buying into the idea of “continuous partial attention”: you’re not paying enough attention to contribute to or get information from the meeting; you’re paying the minimum amount of attention to quickly dismiss the meeting’s distractions and get back to your smartphone, which is what you really care about. And that could be a career-limiting move.

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