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)

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.

In a way, this is similar to e-mail, where it's very easy for your intent to be misunderstood. In the case of e-mail, the problem is caused by the absence of other cues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions and so on. Cell-phone latency can make you misunderstood as well.

Etiquette is the solution. When you detect latency, apologize and bring up the fact that the phone connection is causing the problem. That lets the other person know you don't intend to interrupt them. When both parties understand that there's a technical problem causing the awkwardness, it eliminates the feeling that the other person is being rude.

10. Don't use Google Voice call screening with family and close friends

Google Voice is a wonderful free service that gives you all kinds of power and flexibility with calls. In its default mode, everyone is screened. That means when they call, a computer voice asks them to say their name. When you pick up, it tells you who's calling so you can choose whether to answer the call or send them to voice mail.

It's inconsiderate to make people who call more than once a week jump through those hoops each time. The easiest way around this is to use the phone number given by your carrier for family and close friends, and give out your Google Voice number to everyone else. You could also turn off call screening for everyone, if you don't need that feature.

11. Don't blame the other guy for a dropped call

With more calls happening on cell phones, dropped calls are more common. Nationwide, between 2% and 4% of calls are dropped. In some areas, it can be higher. If you make 100 calls per week, you can expect to experience between two and four dropped calls each and every week.

It's human nature to be biased in favor of one's own phone and carrier. As a result, I've noticed that some people blame the other person's phone for the dropped call after reconnecting. Saying "I think your phone must have dropped the call" sounds petty and can actually make people feel bad.

You can't really know for sure what caused the dropped call. And it doesn't matter. What matters are the feelings of others. It's best to take the blame. "Sorry, my phone must have dropped the call." Or, at the very least, don't blame the other person's phone.

12. Avoid looking things up during a conversation

When we first got Web browsing on our phones, it was fun to answer all questions that emerged during conversation by launching a Google search. The novelty has worn off, and now it can be rude.

It's tempting to think that you can simply integrate the search into the discussion. But the search always takes longer than you think, and requires more attention. The result is that conversation stops, and the person you're talking to might think that you're more interested in your search than you are in him.

It's best to do searches later or, at the very least, ask the person if he minds if you look it up.

13. Be mindful about Facebook tagging

People differ on how open they want to be about their private lives on social networks like Facebook. They also vary in how wide their social circle is. Some only "friend" people who actually are their close friends. Others "friend" everyone, from co-workers and grandparents to strangers.

When you snap a photo with your phone and "tag" someone in it, you're showing the picture to all of his Facebook friends, and you don't know how open or selective he's been about "friending" people. Compromising pictures involving weird haircuts, drunkenness, partial nudity or silly behavior might not bother you, but you don't know how others feel about such things.

A good rule of thumb is to get permission to tag someone else's photo -- or at least never tag a photo unless you're sure that person wouldn't mind showing it to his mother, boss and children.

14. Avoid inappropriate profile pictures

Facebook has a new feature that lets users synchronize Facebook contact information -- including profile pictures -- with their cell phone address books. Many higher-quality phones, including the iPhone, show your picture on the screen when you call.

What that means is that your Facebook profile picture could be displayed on the other person's phone during important business meetings or other situations where an inappropriate photo would embarrass the person you're calling.

Understand that because of Facebook's new feature, your picture can and probably will be seen beyond your Facebook friend list and in situations you cannot predict. Keep your profile picture tasteful and appropriate to all situations.

These are specific new rules of etiquette that I think we should all observe.

Cell phones seem to make everyone ruder. But it doesn't have to be that way. By following the new rules of cell phone etiquette, we can enjoy the awesome power, convenience and fun of the latest smartphones without making other people feel bad.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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