An Open Letter to Cell Phone Owners about Etiquette

Dear Cell Phone Owners,

I am definitely not an etiquette instructor. Heck, I’m about to give advice that even I don’t always follow! But I do think that the way we use cell phones is kind of atrocious and discourteous.  Cell phone use has become convoluted and we need to change our habits. What I’m about to say, you probably already know. But I think it’s definitely time for a reminder. So I’m just going to tell you about what you probably already know about the difference between what cell phone use should be and what it actually is.

What Cell Phone Use Should Be:
Cell phones, and especially smart phones, are super great at giving us information. They connect us with other people, and in the case of smartphones, with a vast network of all other kinds of information. They are capable of entertaining us, getting us where we need to go, and keeping us in touch with the people we love.
Based on this, cell phones should be used for three main purposes:

1) Connecting us with someone else. If you want to get together with your friend next week, text or call them and ask them to go to a movie with you! Are you meeting at the mall and can’t find the other person? Your cell phone is a magical tool that will let you discover where they are. Are you going to be late? Call ahead to let people know (20 years ago, if you showed up to something really late, people probably just gave up and left without you. Thank goodness for cell phones!). Is your mother suddenly ill and in the hospital? Your dad is able to let you know, no matter where you are, by calling you on your cell phone!
2) Entertainment. If you are meeting someone at the movies, and they are very very late, the good news is, you don’t have to sit there, completely bored, and inspect your fingernails. You can take out your phone, text and ask them where they are, check Facebook, or look like an idiot by laughing out loud in a public space at funny videos on your phone. All of these are now options thanks to your cell phone. Similarly, if you’re lying in bed, and you’re too lazy to get up and start up your laptop, you can check your email or browse Reddit from under your comfortable duvet. And when you’re hanging out with friends, you can always capture the event by snapping a quick round of selfies to send out on SnapChat.
3) Information. Are you completely lost trying to find the obscure movie theatre your friend chose? Good news! Google is just a click away. Similarly, if you and your friend are having a debate about the name of an actor or actress in a particular film, IMDB can clear that up for you in a second. If you want to make chili, but you’ve forgotten step 3 of the recipe midway through cooking, your cell phone will let you know immediately.

In my humble opinion, these are all acceptable uses of cell phones. There’s no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of the handy gadget you have on hand. After all, you paid 300 dollars for it, and you’re paying 70 bucks a month to keep it running. And I know that none of you out there are disagreeing with me. Cell phones are great, and have changed how we think, connect, and access information. Nobody’s arguing over that. The thing we might disagree on is when not to use your cell phones…

What Cell Phone Use Shouldn’t Be (But Often Is)
I’m going to start this section off with a little story. I was once hanging out with two friends. One of the friends said to the other: “Hang on a second, don’t say anything, I’m going to send a text.” The conversation paused while this friend sent her text, and then when she was done, she said “Ok, go ahead! I never text while people are talking to me, because I know that I can’t text and listen at the same time.” The very next day, I was hanging out with this friend again, and we were having a serious discussion. As I was telling her my feelings on something, she whipped out her phone and sent a text message, while murmuring “mmhm, mhmm” in response to what I was saying. I was deeply insulted. I had been there the previous day. I had heard this friend tell someone else that she couldn’t listen and text at the same time. For her to then pull out her phone while I was speaking was the ultimate way of saying “What you are saying is not interesting or important to me.”
The thing is, I wouldn’t have needed the first part of this story to have felt annoyed. It added salt to the wound that I had heard her say something about listening and texting previously, but even without that knowledge, I would still have felt ignored. People are very good at reading other people, and they can tell when you’re paying attention. Turning to your phone or staring at a hot lady going by are the same thing: they are obvious signs that your attention is elsewhere, and it’s very easy to tell that you are no longer listening.
I am the first person to admit that I am guilty of texting and “listening”. I was a chronic texter for years. I had the art of texting without looking down pat. I could look you dead in the eyes while pounding out a message on my phone. And I couldn’t be stopped from making sure that my multiple conversations were attended to. It wasn’t until I spent several months without a phone that I got over my reliance on having texting conversations. And it wasn’t until I got sick of being ignored by other people that I realized that texting when someone else is talking is a horribly rude thing to do (although I am still occasionally guilty of doing it).

This is what cell phone use shouldn’t be:
1) Something to do while “listening” to other people. No matter how you justify it, talking and texting (or checking your phone for messages) aren’t OK. Attentional studies in psychology have shown that people aren’t nearly as good at multi-tasking as they claim to be/think they are. Reading and writing texts requires visual, motor, and cognitive attention. There’s a reason they tell you not to text while driving. You can’t attend to the road and your phone at once. And if you can’t handle a complex task like driving while texting, what makes you think you can handle the complex task of listening to another person, and developing interesting and informed responses, while texting. Besides which, everyone knows you can’t text and listen at the same time. When you turn away from someone who’s talking to stare at a small screen and type out a message, that person feels ignored. I don’t think anyone is thinking “Oh, it’s OK, she can listen and text at the same time.” More likely, they are probably thinking “I must be really boring this person.” If you must text, wait until it is yourturn to talk and then say,” hang on three seconds, I need to text my dying grandmother, it’s urgent.” And please please please, don’t provide a running commentary on what other people are texting you. Unless your mutual BFF  just got engaged, it’s not nearly as interesting/funny as you think it is.
2) A way to stay constantly plugged in. Unless you are employed to run social media for a company, and you need to check in on a PR disaster happening on Twitter, you don’t need to be plugged into social media at all times. If you’re hanging out with friends, don’t check Facebook. Don’t update Twitter. Don’t browse Instagram (unless you’re posting selfies of all of you together, with the hastag: #reunion!). Social media isn’t going to provide interesting conversation to the other people, and the 5 likes on your status will still be there when you come back after seeing your friends.
3) A form of making things entertaining. I actually don’t mind YouTube parties much (they can be entertaining), but it does get on my nerves when it seems like the only way to have a good conversation with somebody is to mutually browse the Internet until one of you finds something interesting. Yes, Reddit is a great source of some hilarious and interesting material, but if you can’t be around each other for an hour without looking up and sharing half a dozen cat photos, then you either need to rethink your friendship or find something else to do  (the movies? Mini-golf? Bowling? Skinny dipping? the options are endless people!). It’s one thing to be hanging out in that sort of casual way where you’re each supposed to be studying, but one of you is actually browsing and sharing hilarious Reddit links. It’s another thing to be actively making a point of spending time with someone, and turning to find that person looking blankly at their screen. At that moment, you feel inadequate, so you pull out your screen to stare blankly at too. And then every once in a while, one of you laughs and shares something mildly amusing. That’s not real interaction. Please, if you’re going to hang out, keep Reddit/9Gag/StumbleUpon/YouTube in your pocket.

In Conclusion
All the misuses I’ve pointed out are things that I’m personally guilty of. Cell phones have become a sort of social crutch that we lean on to save us from ourselves. It’s all too easy to pull out your cell phone when you blank on something to say. And the instant one person get out their cell, we all feel the need to follow suit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A little bit of practice and self-discipline, and you can learn how to have a conversation without reaching into your pocket. People have been doing it for centuries, so we know it’s possible. There is hope for human interaction.

As for my little list of 3, I don’t think I’ve even come close to naming all the inappropriate uses of cell phones.  These are just the ones that immediately come to mind as annoying/rude. I’ve steered clear of cases where it’s unsafe to use cell phones (ie. texting while walking) to focus on just the cases where it’s rude. This is about etiquette after all. If you think of any other rude misuses I’ve missed, let me know. Everyone deserves to exist in a world where conversations exist cell phone free!