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Here comes the new cell phone etiquette

In the past three years, cell phones have changed, and so must our manners (lest we descend into barbarism)

January 22, 2010 03:48 PM ET

Computerworld - Call me the Miss Manners of Mobility if you want, but I believe in cell phone etiquette. What is etiquette, anyway? It's really nothing more than a set of rules we all agree to follow in order to be considerate toward others. We follow them as our contribution to the kind of society we want to live in.

It's easy to be rude with a cell phone. A visitor from another planet might conclude that rudeness is a cell phone's main purpose. Random, annoying ring tones go off unexpectedly. People talk too loudly on cell phones in public because of the challenge of holding a conversation in a noisy environment with someone who's not present. Cell phones need their own rules of etiquette, or we'll descend into social barbarism.

But cell phones -- and the ways we use them -- change. In the past three years, the whole world of cell phones has evolved so much that we need some additional rules of etiquette.

Of course, all of these old rules for the courteous use of a cell phone still apply:

  • 1. Lower your voice when taking calls in public.
  • 2. Avoid personal topics when others can hear you.
  • 3. Avoid taking calls when you're already engaged in a face-to-face conversation.
  • 4. If you do take a call, ask permission of the people with you.
  • 5. Avoid texting during a face-to-face conversations.
  • 6. Put your phone's ringer on "silent" in theaters and restaurants.
  • 7. Don't light up your phone's screen in a dark theater.
  • 8. Hang up and drive.

In addition to those rules, we should all observe new rules that cover the new ways we use our phones.

9. Acknowledge the delay

Have you noticed that cell phone calls have gotten more awkward lately? People start speaking at the same time, then they both stop at the same time to let the other speak, and so on. It's not your imagination -- or your fault.

All phone calls involve latency, which means there's a delay between when you speak and when the other person hears it. Over the last few years, this delay has gotten longer, on average. Part of the reason is that more calls are between two cell phones, rather than a cell phone and a land-line phone. But carriers are also increasingly unsuccessful at reducing latency. Using a service like Google Voice increases the latency even further.

As a result of this delay, people are accidentally irritating each other. It seems like the other person is constantly interrupting you. When you use a cell phone to participate in a business conference call, it's very easy to sound rude, like you're not letting other people talk.

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