Modern mobile etiquette
June 8, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Please explain to me as though I have lived under a rock: What are the modern norms among urban folk in the US regarding mobile telephones? SMS? Internet-capable phones and "apps"? When is it appropriate to take a call? To place a call? What do people do with their telephones that really pisses you off? When, if ever, has someone made your life easier by appropriate use of a telephone?

I'm thinking of starting to use a cell phone, at least for voice calls and possibly also SMS, so that I can be easier to contact for immediate, impromptu things and also so that I can keep in touch with old friends now scattered across the US. Also, because bureaucratic processes assume you have telephone access. All of my telephone etiquette was learned in elementary school, when phones were rotary-dial landlines, and then minimally modified to answer the desk phone at work.

In case it matters, I'm a 24 year old yuppie in New York City. My telephone, if I can get a service contract for it, would be an unlocked, rooted Android Dev Phone 1 which I won in a programming contest three or four years ago.
posted by d. z. wang to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What to people who use cell phones do that tick you off? Avoid those things.

I don't take a call anywhere that others will overhear me (within reason) or talk loudly enough to be overheard if I do need to take a call. This is where texting comes in handy. But don't text while you are supposed to be paying attention to someone/thing else. I don't text or talk or surf during meals with others. If there is an urgent reason to take a call/text/check email politely and quickly explain why and excuse yourself if you need to talk elsewhere in order to not disturb those around you.

Basically it is the same as other etiquette rules (the golden rule) do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. Yes, plenty of people break these rules, but that doesn't mean you should. (Disclaimer: I'm no longer 24 and may have, um, stricter rules than you kids. Kindly remove yourself from my lawn)
posted by cestmoi15 at 3:13 PM on June 8, 2012

The person in front of me is more important than the person on the phone. Always.*

*Except for true emergencies, of course, which are vanishingly rare.
posted by workerant at 3:17 PM on June 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

All the rules boil down to this: the people in front of you deserve your attention more than whatever is going on with your phone (making allowances for familial responsibilities, that sort of thing).

If you get a text or a call when with other people, you can look at your phone, and if it's important, you can respond. Otherwise leave it be.
posted by adamrice at 3:19 PM on June 8, 2012

You were born in 1988, and were presumably in elementary school in the '90s. I'm kind of surprised you even know what a rotary phone is, let alone that you've used one. Where the heck did you go to school?

As far as etiquette is concerned, I tend to agree with the other commenters here: people with you in the real world take precedence over calls/txts/emails in every non-emergency context. One of the cool things about the ubiquity of cell phones, in fact, is that since almost everyone has one, it seems much more acceptable for people not to answer them straight away, but instead to call a person back once your meal is over, you've gotten off the bus, you've had a moment to step outside of the small bookshop, or you've completed your conversation with grandma. People know you can call them back quickly once you've got a chance, so they're less upset when you don't answer the phone straight away (at least this has been true in my experience).

I use my phone for everything - work emails, personal and business calls, texts, Facebook, to-do lists, taking pictures, and so on and so on. It is indeed a very useful utility, and very handy to have around. I feel that so long as you are not being conspicuously loud or obnoxious with your cell phone usage, no one's going to care. Might feel weird or ostentatious to be using it for first couple of times you do, but you'll get used to it very quickly.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2012

Nthing that the people in front of you take precedence.

I feel increasingly old-fashioned about this, but I think it's extremely rude for people to take phone calls or even have their phone out at dinner (unless someone else is expected) in small group/one-on-one situations. Likewise, I find it irritating when people are constantly texting or reading texts during a conversation. But then, I grew up in household where we were not allowed to answer the phone during dinner.

That being said, the rudeness can be mitigated immensely by acknowledging interruptions, apologising, and keeping calls/texts to a minimum if they're important. A simple, "Sorry, I need to take/respond to this, do you mind?" goes such a long way. Also keep in mind that some people find it rude if you don't respond to messages or calls right away, so take the pulse of those you're most in communication with and you should be fine.
posted by sundaydriver at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2012

There are two situations in which it drives me crazy when people use their phones: 1) in small meetings (2-4 people total, so that all of us are involved in the conversation), and 2) in restaurants. It really bugs me when someone I'm talking to starts checking their phone in the middle of a conversation, or takes a call. Of course, this assumes non-emergency situations.

[[[Sometimes someone will warn me before we start our meeting: "My mom is in the hospital and I'm waiting on a call from the doctor, if that call comes through while we're talking I will need to take it." Then if the person excuses him/herself while we're talking I don't have a problem with it.

During large, boring work meetings/in seminars/at conferences I often see people quietly texting or browsing on their phones, and that doesn't really bug me. I do it myself sometimes. Note that in group situations like this the ringer should be off!

People talking loudly where they can be overheard is also pretty annoying. This includes hallways outside the offices of working people (students, if you continue to do this outside my office I'm going to start shooting you with tranquilizer darts).
posted by medusa at 3:36 PM on June 8, 2012

Well, there are common practices, and then there is etiquette, and I think when it comes to cell phones theyvary more than most of us would like!

But, here goes from my perspective (Southern US):

Common Practices You Want to Avoid

Talking louder on your cellphone than your normal speaking voice. People talk on their cell phones so loudly that I can not only hear every word they are saying, they often drown out other things I am actually trying to listen to.

Leaving your phone on during takeoff/landing on a plane and at the movies.

Ignoring live people to answer unimportant phone calls. Anything short of, "Your home is on fire!" or "Your loved one is in life support and they're about to pull the plug!" counts as unimportant.

Using a handheld phone when driving. Please, for your own safety, if you are behind the wheel, do not even think of texting!

Proper Cellphone Etiquette
Do not place a call/answer you phone when you are in a line to order/pay for something, being waited on or will otherwise need to interact with a real live person in a business transaction.

Do not talk on your cell phone in a quiet enclosed public area, like a doctor's waiting room, library or similar. If you get an important call, go outside. If this is impossible, answer the phone, explain to the person calling you, in a whisper, that you cannot talk right now, and hang up. There is no need for you to discuss it further. If it's an emergency, they'll tell you, and chances are you'll want to leave then anyway.

No one wants to turn off their phones on planes. This is a given. 75% of us do, though, because we don't want to be the asshat that holds up takeoff. 20% don't turn their phones off until a flight attendant specifically comes to their seat and tells them to, either because they didn't hear the initial warning, or are frequent fliers that know just how long ey can get away with it. The other 5% are the asshats.

Turn off your phone in a theater (or at LEAST turn off the ringer) the moment the previews end, if not before.

Do NOT text during a movie, period! The bright light of a phone's screen is incredibly distracting in the darkness and it affects everyone seated near you.

There was a guy sitting in front of my Mom and Dad texting when I took my parents to see The Avengers (okay, I admit it, I saw it twice), and I figured he'd put his phone away after a few seconds. It's a good movie, no reason he'd want to miss any of it either. Seriously, unless you are Tony Stark himself, you do NOT need to be texting during The Avengers!

Anyway, he didn't stop, just kept it up. My Mom and Dad are excruciatingly correct in eir behavior and wouldn't dream of saying anything, though I leaned over at one point and whispered for him to please put his phone away. And then, wouldn't you know, he got his phone out again a couple minutes later!

So I kicked the back of his chair. When he put the phone away for good, the people beside him turned and mouthed "Thank you!" at me.

I'm sure my parents felt I should have restrained myself --We both violated etiquette there--but I am not losing any sleep over it.
posted by misha at 3:46 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

What are the modern norms among urban folk in the US regarding mobile telephones? SMS? Internet-capable phones and "apps"? When is it appropriate to take a call? To place a call? What do people do with their telephones that really pisses you off? When, if ever, has someone made your life easier by appropriate use of a telephone?

Misha has really nailed it but I'll give this a shot anyway:

1. Don't follow the modern norms. There are really a lot of rude/inconsiderate people using cell phones and smart phones. Be old school and courteous.

2. It is appropriate to take a call when you are alone in a private place, e.g. your office or home, not engaged in or soon to engage in an interaction with anyone else, and not operating any kind of machinery. When in public places like theatres, elevators, crowder commuter transportation, courtrooms, churches, etc., either have your phone powered off or on a no doubt about it silent mode. Vibrate is a good way of finding out you have an incoming call or text. Text under the same circumstances you would choose to use a computer -- i.e. don't abruptly depart a conversation to text, or try to drive and text.

3. The rules in 2. apply to placing calls/texts too.

4. It really bothers me when people use their phones in my vicinity, because everyone raises their voice to speak on the phone. I hate it whether I'm shopping next to them, in the elevator with them, or in a car with them. I also think it is horrid to be talking to someone who is trying to look at apps and/or text or tweet during our conversation. The exception to this is if we are using the phone/tablet together. And anyone who has a brightly lit screen or a phone/tablet emitting sound in a setting like a theatre or courtroom or movie is probably getting my death stare.

5. It is very appropriate to text people if you are delayed or trying to find them at a rendesvous, assuming you are in a safe stationary place to do that. Phones are great when used to summon help or navigate. Often it is possible with a speaker phone or an app like Skype to have a conversation with someone who isn't able to join in person. My husband and I love checking the tweets about what's going on during baseball games we are watching together. There are a zillion great ways to use a phone, as long as the method employed is considerate and courteous to others.
posted by bearwife at 4:04 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think all the suggestions so far that deal with cell phone use around strangers are excellent, i.e. no texting at the movies, no loud conversations on the subway... it's not that complicated!

But! I think cell phone etiquette is one of those areas where what is considered acceptable varies so widely from group to group that asking a bunch of strangers on the internet is nearly useless.

Even among different groups of my own friends and family and coworkers, there's a really wide range of what's considered appropriate. Some friends I'll only text during "phone hours" (which for me is probably 8AM to 9PM), but others I'll send a quick text in the middle of the night if I think of something I want to say. My dad takes work phone calls when he takes me out to lunch (I would not do this). My friend G checks in on foursquare EVERYWHERE HE GOES (I do not get this). I work in two different departments at work; in one set of meetings, it's completely acceptable to be checking your email, in the other it is unheard of.

Basically, you don't need to worry about what we think, it's more important what the people you are planning on calling and texting think.
posted by mskyle at 4:06 PM on June 8, 2012

Turn off your phone in a theater. NOT just turn the ringer off, or don't talk; turn it off and leave if off. Texting, checking email, checking the time: anything that turns the screen on lights up a lot of seats around you. Whether it's a movie theater or live theater - people around you have paid for their seats and are trying to enjoy the show. If you can't get through two hours without going online, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and stay home.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:22 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are you asking solely about phone use etiquette, or are you also asking about people's assumptions about your "mobile presence"?

I use my cell phone minimally. It is not a smart phone. There are two kinds of situations that surprise people who interact with me:
  1. When someone expects me to use my phone as a camera: to document something, to demonstrate something to someone, etc.
  2. When someone expects me to receive email when I'm away from a computer. I don't have a data plan. Others usually reason that I have my phone with me at all times ("doesn't everyone?"), and that therefore I can answer messages wherever I may be.
Now, I'm fine not being an event photographer/videographer, and I also don't want to be constantly on call. These things are not part of my job description and I certainly don't want them to be a part of my leisure time. But they are, evidently, outside the norm.
posted by Nomyte at 4:51 PM on June 8, 2012

I do believe that it's acceptable to tell someone "hang on, I need to return this call," even when it's not an emergency. The important thing, I think, is to make it clear that the caller does not outrank the person you're talking to — that your face-to-face friend has an equal or greater claim on your attention. But that doesn't need to be a total claim on your attention.

Suppose I'm talking to you in a bar and another friend of mine beckons at me from across the room. It would be horribly rude to cut you off in mid-sentence and rush over there. It would be perfectly fine to give friend #2 the "just a minute" sign, wait for a pause in the conversation, and then say "Hey, lemme see what he wants, I'll be right back." It would actually be rude as hell to ignore friend #2 entirely just because someone else is closer.

I think a vibrating cell phone (do keep it on vibrate) should be treated like a friend beckoning from across a crowded room. Wait for a pause in the conversation, say "sorry, I need to see who this is," and then check the name and number and decide whether it needs returning. If it does, apologize again and excuse yourself. If it doesn't, say "whatever, it can wait" — flattering the person you're with, incidentally — and go back to talking.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:26 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good advice so far, but I am also 24, and here is some etiquette specific to our age group:
1. Don't call when a text will suffice. Say you're looking for a friend in a crowded area. Why would you want to deal with spotty reception and loud nosies on both ends when you could just send a text explaining your location (or, better yet, a drop pin)?
2. Definitely don't leave a voicemail when a text will suffice. This is for the sake of clarity and time. If you follow Community, part of what made those Chevy Chase voicemails so funny was the idea that certain people still leave voicemails.
3. Don't call it an SMS in the US... the word 'text' is more common.
4. For a lot of people, the phone call is no longer a really common way of keeping in touch with old friends. With all the other forms of communication available today, a phone call is rarely the best solution. For long chats with friends or family, a pre-planned Skype date is superior. For casual chit-chat or flirting, it's better to use text, gchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
5. At the same time, having a phone is important, because it allows you to access all those new forms of communication, and it is really useful to have for emergencies (even when the emergency is "oh no, what time does that store close tonight?") So you should definitely start using your phone.
posted by acidic at 6:07 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please, do NOT assume a text will suffice. Never text unless someone tells you that it's OK. Ask.

I don't have texting. Last week, I replied to an email by stating, specifically, "If we are still meeting, please call and leave voicemail [at XXX-XXXX] on my office phone with the details and I'll check voicemail before departing. If we are not meeting, please email a reply with the plan." This was because I was coming from far away, and would be able to check voicemail before departing my client location and figured if I had no message, the meeting was cancelled and I was safe to go back to my office. Instead, the person my office phone...which is a landline. If she'd texted my cell, I still wouldn't have received it, but she a) assumed I text which, trust me, LOTS of people don't do and b) she assumed my place of business was a cell number instead of a landline.

I'd left specific instructions, which she ignored. Don't be that person. When people give you their numbers, ask if they use it for calls or texting, too. Use the same etiquette rules your mother taught you when you were a kid. Don't call or text someone before 9a or after 9p unless you know *for certain* the person doesn't mind being disturbed. As everyone else has noted, don't disrespect the people around you by taking calls, not making eye contact, fiddling with your phone or shining your phone flashlight in movies.

Don't text and drive. Don't text and walk. Reread nebulawindphone's advice. (Now get off my lawn.)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 6:21 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wasn't going to answer this question, because I felt like it had been pretty well sewn up already, but then this happened to me.

If you have the sort of job where you can have access to your cell phone throughout the day, never interrupt a work-related conversation with your boss to answer a personal call on your cell phone.

Especially never do it by just answering the phone mid-sentence without even bothering to say, "Oh, sorry, I have to take this," or the like.

It's rude when you do it to your friends, but it's absolutely unprofessional when you do it to your boss, at work, when she's in the middle of assigning you a task.
posted by Sara C. at 6:34 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please leave voicemails. At least, if you want a reply to your call. Despite all the "Do Not Call" registries I still get a ton of telemarketers/wrong numbers/political messages/etc to the point where if the number is not a named contact in my phone I won't pick up. People can keep their cell phone numbers from contract to contract now so I get calls from area codes all over the country, and I don't know if it is a friend of a friend I just met who moved here from Florida last week or some dude actually in Florida trying to sell me renters insurance.

So, I just assume that if someone is trying to get ahold of me for a reasonable reason, (it's the doctor's office, it's the bank telling me they lost all my money, it's someone contacting me about a family member's emergency, its an acquaintance who wanted to make plans) that they will leave a message. If they leave a message, I listen, then call them back. If they don't leave a message I just ignore the unidentified number in my phone because I have never called a number like that back and gotten a person I needed/wanted to talk to. So, the moral is: make it easy to identify your number, with a voicemail. Texts don't work unless someone is opt-in (they say: send me a text) because some people don't get them, some people don't have plans and the texts pile up into charges, some people hate them because you can't read tone of voice (like me) and other reasons.

Also be aware: lots of professionals (doctors, etc) call from one number but use another number for incoming calls. Remember to call the number they leave in their message or that is on their card or website or whatever; if you just respond to the number they called from either you get a nothing or sometimes you catch them at home and unless that is your intention it can be weird.

Clearly cell phones can be a lot of work. I know more and more people who ignore them unless it is convenient. Which seems reasonable to me, you have to find your own boundaries with the cell phone and establish them, otherwise: people assume you want bings and pings and calls and texts every single hour of the day.
posted by newg at 7:38 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the unspoken, but frankly quite logical, assumptions with acidic's post are that:

- You know the other phone is a cell phone, and
- You know that the person HAS sent/received text messages in the past, i.e. that not only is the phone capable of texting, the person is OK with doing that.
- The other person is in their twenties (this part was not unspoken. The advice was "specific to our age group," not for everyone. I would not apply this advice to my parents, for instance.)

Clearly, I don't think acidic is suggesting that we text phone numbers that could be landlines -- although, honestly, in the age-group, many people don't have landlines at all. I don't.

It's common sense: I would never text an office number, and I leave voicemails when I am at work, but I freely admit I get very aggrieved to see voicemails on my cell phone. It is 99% of the time faster to read a text message than to listen to someone stammer on the phone, hemming and hawing because they didn't really think through what they were about to say. I don't know about you, but I read much, much faster than I listen to anything.

(and hey! I know what a rotary phone is.)
posted by andrewesque at 9:05 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot depends on your friends. Like with voicemails, we all consider it a pain... if you wanted to tell me something you would just text, and if you wanted to talk, I'll call back when I see a missed call. Only people from the pre cell phone gen will leave a message saying "call me back."
posted by smackfu at 9:16 PM on June 8, 2012

Never phone someone if you can text them. Never answer a phone call unless you're in a private place.

Phone calls themselves are on the way out; texting and IM is the future. That's really all you need to know if you've been in the dark.
posted by Yowser at 11:56 PM on June 8, 2012


Let people know what to expect when they phone you: My standard line is "you can call anytime, I won't answer when I can't answer, but I'll call you back". You might want to say "no calls after 11pm" or you might want to say "my phone is switched off when I'm asleep, so feel free to call - if you get through that means I'm OK to take the call".

If you prefer texts (most people do), tell people when you exchange numbers. If you are exchanging numerical information like addresses, dates, and times, it's always better to text.

The person in front of you has priority, but that means you ask them or say "excuse me", not necessarily that you never answer the phone.

I consider it wonderful etiquette if no-one but you ever hears your ringtone. Vibrate mode should be default.

Switch to airplane mode every time you're in a position to not receive calls.

If you can, turn off voicemail. Nobody loves voicemail.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:41 AM on June 9, 2012

When, if ever, has someone made your life easier by appropriate use of a telephone?

CONSTANTLY when meeting up with people: "I'm running 15 minutes late/I'm parked at the south end of the parking lot in a green Subaru/I'm standing next to the giant statue/etc."
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:45 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

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