Evolutionary Etiquette and the Cellular Telephone

Drive now, talk later.
- Tom and Ray Magliozzi
Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers
Car Talk on NPR

I have a number of etiquette books written over the past century in my library. As you can imagine, an etiquette book from 1924 does not have a chapter on cell phone etiquette. While this will not surprise you, the ideals that formed the basis for a 1924 etiquette book can be directly applied to today's technologically advanced world. Ideally, cell phone usage should follow the golden rule; "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". Cellular telephones have been a part of modern life long enough now that one would think most people would know their proper usage. But, as we know, common sense is not always so common. There are five quick questions you should ask yourself before you answer your ringing cellular telephone:

  1. If I answer my phone right now, will I disturb those around me?
    If you are in a theatre, restaurant, train, plane, meeting, conference, wedding, funeral, or any other situation where others are trying to pay attention or are unable to easily move away from you, you should not answer your phone.
  2. If I answer my phone right now, will I be ignoring the people with whom I am currently spending time?
    If you are with other people, in a meeting, interview, restaurant, theater, party, picnic or any other time when your attention should be focused on the people at hand, then you should not answer your phone.
  3. If I answer my phone right now, will I be discussing topics, issues or people that should not be overheard by the general public?
    If the topics of your conversations are not items that can be printed on the front page of the newspaper, you should not answer your phone.
  4. If I answer my phone right now, will I be missing out on a part of my life that I may regret later?
    Whether it is walking your dog, watching your kids play in the park, or waiting for a table with a friend, enjoy the moment.
  5. If I answer my phone right now, will I be placing others or myself in danger?
    If you are in your car, please pull over before dialing, answering or speaking on your phone. Studies have shown that it is the act of speaking on the phone (not necessarily the dialing or holding) that causes driver error.
Here are a couple other issues to consider:

What Civilized People Know ~ Cellular phones are equipped with two fabulous features. The first is that you can turn off the ringer. The second is voicemail. Use both when appropriate.

Back Up Plan ~ In emergencies, be sure that others know where you are going and have an alternate method of contacting you. If a loved one is very ill and you are headed to a meeting at a client's office, leave your secretary the client's number so that if you do not answer your phone, she is still able to reach you.

Where To Wear ~ I have been told by the fashion aficionados that wearing your cell phone clipped to your belt is "so 1990's!" Cell phones should be out of sight in a pocket, purse, or bag.

When Resting ~ Just like eyeglasses, due to their frequent contact with your hands, ears and hair, cell phone should never be placed on a table where food will be served.

Cellular telephone faux pas occur almost as often as they ring. I have collected cellular telephone etiquette emergencies for the past couple months, and here are the three best to date:

Third Place:
"My boyfriend had just proposed and we were calling friends and family to share the news. While telling one friend, he asked me to hold on for a moment. The next thing we heard was flushing. Then, more flushing and more flushing. He had answered his phone is a public restroom. Ick!"

Second Place:
"We were interviewing for an entry level consultant. All of the candidates had strong educational backgrounds and degrees from well-known graduate schools. It was going to be difficult to choose between the final few. During the last round of interviews, one of the candidates answered his cell phone. He then proceeded to talk to another recruiter about his application to that company. Needless to say, the interview ended right then and he was not offered a position."

And the Gold Medal goes to...
"Last weekend, my friend and I hiked to the top of a local mountain. The leaves had just begun to turn and it was the perfect, sunny yet cool autumn day. When we reached the top, we sat drinking water and just admiring the spectacular views. We could hear birds singing, crickets chirping and squirrels rustling in the leaves. Suddenly we heard a woman calling "Hello??, Hello!?!" We turned and called out "Hello, yes, we hear you!" We stood up to start looking for her thinking she might be in trouble, hurt or lost. Just then she emerged from the trail, cell phone to her ear. "Hello?!? I am at the top of this stupid mountain and I still can't hear you!!"

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ The salon where I have my hair done has a big sign asking customers to turn off their cell phones. But I worry that the babysitter will not be able to reach me if something is wrong. Should I ignore the rule?

A: The solution is easier than you think. Leave the babysitter the telephone number for the salon. If something is wrong, the sitter can call the salon receptionist and have you paged.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I am a commuter and often find myself stuck sitting next to someone who will spend the whole 40 minutes making calls and talking on the phone. The trains are crowded and seats are hard to find. I like to read or doze during the ride and someone shouting right next to me is very annoying. The conversations never seem to be of great importance, they are usually talking about their shopping list or what to have for dinner. What can I do?

A: Believe it or not, the etiquette experts are split as to whether talking on a cell phone on a train is a nuisance or not. As a former commuter, I must agree with you. There are a few options you have, short of changing seats. You can employ the "look" to let the person know you do not find their conversation amusing. You can ask them, nicely, to talk softly. Or, if that does not seem to work, you can be overly helpful by joining the conversation, offering your opinion. "If you are going to the store, be sure to pick up some bananas, they are on sale this week." "The best is when you make lasagna in advance and freeze half. That way dinner is a breeze during the week."

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I recently had a houseguest who spent a good portion of his visit on his cell phone. It was nice for him not to charge the long distance calls to our house, but we would have liked him to visit more and phone less. Should we have said something?

A: As the host, you are allowed to set house rules. No telephones during dinner is usually a given. After that, you want to be sure that both you and the guest have some downtime to make calls, take a nap or read quietly. If the phone use is becoming excessive and intrusive, you can wait until a call is done and then take the guest aside to say something along the lines of "I am so glad you are here. Our visits never seem long enough. I know you have a lot of business, but I want to be sure we are able to spend time just chatting." Or, if you have a good relationship with the person, you can go to the other side of the house and call them on their cell phone to ask if they can chat!