Cellphone etiquette: Minding your mobile manners

Chicagoan enjoys a quick lunch while checking their cellphone.

By Lily Singh

We all know you just don’t – EVER – double-dip a tortilla chip in the salsa. But what is the cellphone equivalent of this social gaffe?

In being tied to our cellphones, some of us may wonder just what it means to be polite while using them.

The art of cellphone etiquette is a relatively new idea in the grand scheme of the history of polite behavior. The notion of pairing etiquette and mobile use is of increasing importance as phones trickle into every elevator, office cubicle and restaurant table. According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of American adults already owned a cellphone way back in May 2013.

A survey conducted by Pew in 2014 assessed Americans thoughts concerning acceptable use of their phones in public places. For instance, 77 percent of people surveyed thought it was generally okay to use the phone while walking down the street, a number that quickly drops when switching gears to use the phone at a worship service. In this setting, only four percent of those surveyed believe it is okay to use the phone.

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Ellen Clayton, co-owner of Etiquette School of Chicago, teaches students the importance of considering the people around you. “Maybe somebody is reading and who knows maybe someone just wants some quiet time,” Clayton said. In this case, it may be more polite to let the person know you will call them back.

“It’s all about consideration, discretion, common sense and thinking ahead if you’re in a situation,” said Clayton.

Thinking ahead is especially important when eating with others at a restaurant. According to the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of Americans believe it is okay to use their cellphones at a restaurant.

“You can always announce to the people you are eating with that you are expecting an important phone call and, if it happens to arrive while you’re dining, it’s always appropriate to remove yourself from the table,” said Barbara Finney of The Etiquette & Leadership Institute of Illinois.

There are other times when being prepared beforehand can save you from casting a bad impression of yourself. When in the presence of others, it is important to be considerate of their time and attention.

“We have a little tag line that says ‘Be Present’ so when you’re at a table you want to be present to the people at the table, to the food, to the conversation, to it all,” said Clayton.

Knowing when it is appropriate to use your phone is not enough; sometimes the temptation to use the phone is just too much.

“I always tell my clients to not use their cell phones as a security blanket,” said Akilah Easter,  owner of the EtiquetteFemme school in Chicago. “I don’t even pull it out when I’m waiting at a restaurant, I always tell adults, ‘What did you do before cell phones were an everyday thing?’”

Staying off the phone in public places is not only considerate but it can be in your best interest as well. When taking calls in public, some may not realize the personal information that is falling on unknown ears.

“Avoid talking about personal and confidential matters when in public,” said Patt Karubus of the Etiquette for Everybody school that conducts classes in the Chicago area. “If such details are necessary, make arrangements to call the person back when you have privacy.”

The percentage of the population relying on a cellphone increased 26 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. With an increased number of cellphone owners comes an increased need to address the proper use of these devices no matter what level you are on.

“Whether you’re an 11-year-old kid, a middle-aged executive, or a grandpa, the tenets of appropriate cell phone usage remain the same,” Karubus said.

Photo at top: A Chicagoan enjoys a quick lunch while checking their cellphone. (Lily Singh/Medill)