Tweeting in church. Facebooking in class. Texting in a public restroom. All of these activities are possible with a Smartphone, but are they socially appropriate? What are the rules of Smartphone etiquette?
“The key is how you choose to use it. It has an off switch, it has a vibrate or silence. You can check voice mail later. You can choose how to use this technology and I think that is very important key to getting it right.”
Anna Post is author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, an organization that specializes in etiquette training. She says there are few widely accepted taboos surrounding Smartphone behavior, but that some standard of etiquette is developing.
“I think for example of a local pharmacy where in the very beginning there were no signs about cell-phone usage at the counter and over the months as I went into pick up prescriptions, I noticed the signs were getting more and more severe. Please consider not using your cell phone. Please don’t use your cell phones. No cell phones. Absolutely no cell phones at anytime (laughs). The fact that we’re doing this naturally and starting to self-police tells me that it’s something that while unspoken, people are aware and that’s the key part.”
Post says the primary barrier to Smartphone etiquette is time.
“When the technology almost changes before the society can adapt, it can be confusing for people. We don’t want to be offensive to others, but we have to be using the technology to even start to figure out what can be offensive.”
Difference in age plays another role. What’s offensive for one generation may be the norm for another.
“It’s just so funny sometimes the difference in mentality between generations. I might be a little annoyed if my boyfriend took a call at the table, whereas for a younger generation, this is a normal action. Its considerate to answer the phone because it might be important, and to me that’s just a fascinating distinction.”
But Post says some situations are not open for debate.
“Something like 87 percent of people think that it’s wrong to be using a mobile device at a religious service. I agree completely with that. This is a very solemn occasion. This is a very serious important and respectful moment for the people participating, and its just not appropriate for the occasion.”
And what about the restroom?
You know, it’s really funny because I would have said that using cell phones in public restroom is absolutely taboo, and yet when Intel did their survey, they found that 75 percent of people thought this was ok. As far as I’m concerned if I’m in a public restroom and someone’s on a cell phone it’s like they brought a stranger into the room with them. Its not a very comforting feeling.”
Genevieve Bell is a cultural anthropologist who studies technology. She’s also Director of Intel’s User Experience Group, which recently conducted a survey on Smartphone etiquette. Among more than 2,000 adults surveyed, 80 percent believe there are unspoken rules surrounding Smartphone use.
“These devices are not just toys or work objects, but they’re starting to fall into our daily lives.”
Bell says sorting out what these unspoken rules are has always been a challenge with new technology.
“I remember as a kid my family and the families of all my friends still working out how to manage television in the households. Did you turn it off when guests come over? How far away should you sit from it? And I think it took 20 years for those things to really settle out.”
Marketing Professor Joel Poor at the University of Missouri hopes etiquette surrounding Smartphone use in the classroom develops at a quicker pace. In the last two years, he’s noticed a great increase among students texting and playing games on their Smartphones when they should be paying attention to him.
“We live in a very fast paced world, but I’m confident that these students who feel compelled to text aren’t doing so to save the life of a family member. There’s no real urgent need. I think in terms of etiquette they should keep their devices off.”
When Poor does try to call students out on their distracting behavior, it doesn’t always go as planned.
“I remember one time, a girl in the third row and we were just starting class, and she was talking on the phone, so I took her phone from her and said ‘hey man, you know, your girlfriend isn’t yours anymore she’s mine, so you can forget it. And it turns out it was her father. I was so embarrassed.”
I visited one of Poor’s 420-student lectures and immediately noticed the sea of Smartphones glowing from the back.
“I get on Facebook and check the news. I play games. I have scrabble on my phone, so sometimes I play scrabble during class, stuff like that.”
“I look at texts from last night, or Facebook, or what the weather’s going to be this week, or text friends.”
“They have TAs now watch in the back and they watch every student pretty closely. Unless you’re in a corner away from everything, you’re probably going to be seen with it..”
“Nobody’s actually been called out in any of my classes. There’s stuff in the syllabus about not being on their phone, but I don’t think anyone pays attention to that.”
Poor says professors are trying to embrace new technology in the classroom, but that the terrain is unfamiliar.
“There are professors that want to use texting and podcasting and everything we have available, yet we don’t know if these are effective methods for communication or teaching.”
By the time professors, students and anthropologists do determine what constitutes proper Smpartphone etiquette, chances are they’ll be learning the ropes of whatever replaces it.