Getting the Finger at Work: Seven Ways to Demonstrate Interruption Etiquette and Avoid that Classic Gesture that You Consider Rude

Have you ever gotten the finger at work? Come on, you know the finger. That raised finger, pointed upward, with a simultaneous closing of the fist? That classic upward pointing finger that sends a clear message, of… well… “Wait a minute please”?

Have you ever been in your office, on your phone — not cell, the landline — like that really makes a difference — and someone simply saunters in and starts talking? Have you ever been drowning under raging tsunamis and someone dives into your space with their cries, alarms and calls for something or the other that falls way down on the priority list but to them is a matter of life or death.

It’s happened to me… countless times.

Do people not look? Do they not observe that you’re on the phone, or engrossed, or already drowning? Do they not hear that you’re engaged — that means, “in the middle of” a conversation, a something? Do they not detect that many things are in progress simultaneously and you might actually need a lifeline yourself? And even if you’re not, how did they get their jobs without completing Interruption Etiquette 101?

I work in a school. 500 students. 90 or so staff members. Everyday, I confront a constant stream of students, parents, visitors, phone calls, reports, meetings — scheduled and impromptu — and deadlines to meet. Everyday, I fight. There is no time for lunch and even less time to pee. Do I need to put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign when I’m engaging in each activity? Should I identify each activity and exactly how much time I anticipate needing? And what happens when I put up such signage — on the outside of a closed door? People see me though the narrow glass window and bang repeatedly anyway. Or they jump up and down with arms flailing in the air. Or both. And they utter desperate sounds, sounds that translate to “Emergency” or “Help” or “Save me.”

What does “Do Not Disturb — Meeting in Progress” mean? Or “Please Do Not Interrupt. Phone Conference in Progress”? Or “Overdue Compliance Documents in Progress. Please Do Not Interrupt”? Yes. I’ve tried them all.

One day, last year, unable to think or breathe while in the midst of two crises and three urgencies, I put up the the following sign: “Emergencies being handled… Please Do Not Disturb… Unless you have an emergency that needs immediate attention as well.” Someone did. She banged on the door, jumped up and down and banged some more… then aggressively pointed to the base of the door as a sheet of paper was transported into my Twilight Zone. When I got up two minutes later, walked over to the document and picked it up, I discovered it was a note about a trip taking place a week later. “Can Ms. Jones go with me and my class on the trip?”

Emergency??! Really??!

Sometimes, when interrupted, I make a sign with one finger signaling, “I need a minute” and sometimes, I make a worse gesture (apparently) with a whole hand up in the air, “I need five minutes, please.” I’ve been told directly, “That’s rude, Ms. Patrovani… Yes. It is.” And I’ve received similar declarations via the building’s healthy grape vine. Not a tasty drink for me to swallow when I always apologize if I have to interrupt you, if I come to talk to you during the instructional session, if I am giving you an emergency coverage. I know what your day is like. I was in the classroom just yesterday. I get the busyness of existence and the rush of the day. These comments have come directly from the very people who barge in, hover over me, and begin clanging cymbals, while I’m speaking with a parent, an attorney, a service provider, another teacher, my internal supervisor, an external DOE supervisor, or frankly, my own children’s doctors.

Why is it that everyone needs instant gratification? Why is everyone’s need such an emergency? Everyone’s except mine?

One evening, as I was two hours past my departure time, urgently wrapping up to leave, and yes, in the midst of tying up an important conversation with an attorney about work related issues, a staff member walked in through my usually open door and began speaking loudly. I put up that one index finger, that universal gesture, straining to hear what the attorney was explaining, now two interruptions later, and for the third time. No dice. I desperately pointed to the phone as I fused it to my eardrum and repeated the universal “Give me a minute please” signal. The clamoring continued. Loudly, with the added the musical accompaniment of jingling keys in her hand. I excused myself from my phone call, “Ms. John, please give me a minute to finish this call. I cannot speak to you right now.” Ms. John reversed two steps, and in the second that I turned to resume my call, she announced, “But I just wanted to say goodbye and have a good evening.”

Twilight and reality collided. How does that constitute an emergency? Please tell me.

The following day, I met with Ms. John and addressed the issue, asking her to be aware and if it is not an emergency please allow me to finish what I am doing, that even the jingling keys is a distraction. Ms. John’s response: “Oh. It’s okay. You don’t have to apologize…”

“What!!!” Someone, please help me!!!!

On another occasion, probably 11:00 am, though time does not matter, another staff member walked in through my open door, talking loudly as she approached:

Me: “Give me one moment please. I’m on a call.”
Teacher: “Well, I have something important to discuss.”
Me: “I understand. Can you see me later? If it’s an emergency, please see the secretary.”
Teacher: “Okay. But it’s important. Five minutes. You better be ready when I come back.”
Five minutes elapses but I’m still on the call.
Teacher returns: “Ms. Patrovani, I have to talk to you…”
I look up and give the one finger signal, imploring, “Please…”
Teacher: “You’re still on the phone?!!! How long are you going to be there???

Teacher storms off.

Later, she explained that her printer was not working and frankly said, “If you don’t want to be interrupted, you should close your door. That finger thing you do is rude.”

Sigh. I can’t win…

People, if you do not like getting the finger at work, there are seven simple things you can do to avoid the classic gesture.

1. Show some common sense, courtesy and respect. Do not walk into people’s offices without a direct invitation to do so. That is actually rude. Wait at the door until ushered in.

2. Observe what is taking place as you approach. Do not start talking loudly, demanding immediate attention. A crisis might already be in progress. If if it is not, be quiet.

3. Show professionalism and cooperation. Consider how you feel when you are constantly interrupted (open door or not), distracted and/or hindered from accomplishing your responsibilities. You don’t like people disregarding your time and the accomplishing of your obligations. Thus, don’t do it.

4. Prioritize please. Printer issues and wishing someone a good evening or a good weekend are not emergencies when there are many other printers in the building, and the weekend will come and go, with and without the well wishes. Some things can be indicated on a technology repair request form and some things can just be left unsaid.

5. Don’t hover. If you are waiting around for the person to get off the phone, or to give you their attention, chances are your presence alone is a distraction. Move out of the way. Find a waiting area out of sight. Allow them to concentrate. When emergency vehicles are barreling down the street with sirens and flashing lights, you move over and let them pass. Let what is occurring, pass.

6. Use your judgment. If something is really important, write a note. Leave it in the person’s mailbox, or quietly put it on their desk, or tape it to their door. Better yet, send an email. It’s working.

7. Adhere to the signals. Recognize that one index finger up is the universal signal for “one minute needed” and one open hand up indicates, “five minutes (or so) needed.” It is not your turn to “go.” We don’t’ tell the traffic agent in the middle of a busy intersection that he is being rude when he signals “stop.” We just stop because someone else has the right of way.

The classic gesture for “Wait a minute please” is holding up the index finger. The context makes the signal clear. Do we really need an Interruptions Etiquette Course or Manual?

Originally published on December 21, 2015 @