Cell phone etiquette is one of those things that tends to work itself out over time. I remember in the mid-1990s sitting in a theatrical performance about the life of Christ, a very moving and spiritually intense performance. When a cell phone started ringing in row three, it jarred me out of my reverie. That was bad enough, but then the individual took the call and proceeded to carry on a conversation right there in the middle of the performance. When technologies are new it takes a while for the social rules to catch up. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen such a socially clueless display in a theatrical performance or movie theatre. Still, problems exist and we need to be aware of proper cell phone etiquette.
A survey conducted in September 2003 by Nokia found that a staggering 89 percent of mobile users believe that people need to adopt better ‘mobile etiquette,’ for example the use of ringing and messaging tones so as not to disturb others around them, and by not shouting and pacing while on the phone.13
Fortunately, modern smartphones have made it easier to silence a ringer with little effort, and most people have caught on to the fact that your ringing cell phone can be heard by fellow diners who frankly don’t want their meal interrupted by a loud chorus of “Louie Louie” screaming from your purse.
Most cellphones and pagers have three setting options: ring, vibrate, and off. Each setting is appropriate at certain times. For professional uses and environments, the ringer option on a phone or pager should be a sound that is neither annoying nor loud. The vibrate mode is appropriate during meetings and in any public setting where a ring is rude and distracting, and when the device can be discreetly carried or held. A device placed on a table that vibrates can be more distracting than an audible ring. During special events (e.g., funerals, religious services) or important meetings (e.g., job interviews), a cellphone should be turned off. Exiting such an event to answer or even check for calls is distracting, and unless the situation is an emergency, it’s rude.14
While sound can be an obnoxious distraction, in a darkened movie theatre the light of a cell phone can be terribly intrusive on the people behind you who paid to watch a movie, not to watch you text. I once witnessed an altercation in a movie theatre that almost came to blows. A man was texting on his smartphone, and the guy behind him asked him to put his phone away. The texting guy replied, impatiently, “I’m not talking,” to which the other guy countered, “Yeah, but the light is bothering me.” That’s the point where the phone guy should have apologized and put it away. Instead, he shot back, “Well, it’s not bothering me.” That’s when the guy behind said something like, “Look, either put it away or I’ll…” and then said some words I won’t repeat here. That was a few years ago. Today, another dozen people would have joined in and yelled for the guy to put his phone away.
Cell phone etiquette is important because the mobility of cellular telephony permits you to take your conversations into the personal space of others. The guiding principle is respect for the people around you. For example, when people talk on cell phones they tend to talk louder than in a normal conversation. I don’t know why this is. Maybe there’s a subconscious compensation for the perceived distance of the other person on the phone. Whatever the reason, having to endure half of a conversation at high volume is really not fair to the innocent bystanders on whom it’s inflicted. Also, nobody around you cares about your latest medical procedure or how your boyfriend doesn’t understand you.
People act as if they’re walking through life in a cone of silence in which only they and the other person on the end of the line can hear them. They can talk quite loudly, and they can talk about things that people around them don’t really want to hear about.
– Honore Ervin
A related issue involves prioritizing to the people who are physically with you. If you are in the middle of a face-to-face conversation, that person should be your first priority.