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Cell phone etiquette

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 9, 2015

People have been complaining about bad cell phone behavior for years. What are the 21st century’s Emily Post rules for cell phones and texting? (For the millennials: Emily Post was the great doyenne of etiquette and manners advice in the 20th century. Her descendants still produce advice books under her name. And there actually are new-era Emily Post rules; see below.)

sign: "Please tun off your phones during [church] services"

(Click for source.)

In 2012, John Dvorak, a tech journalist, complained that “somewhere along the line, it became okay to yak on the phone in the restaurant . . . . Nobody cares unless you are talking too loud or making a scene. . . . [T]he mobile phone has plagued etiquette on the planet . . . . [and] all the old manners have been tossed out.”

That same year, a chip-making company sponsored a survey that revealed that “most adults believe that mobile manners are getting worse (81%) and wish people practiced better mobile etiquette in public (92%).” Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a large survey on “Mobile Etiquette.” Its findings suggest that people have some real peeves, but also that some consensus on proper cell phone behavior is emerging.

This fraught discussion recalls one about a century ago about the proper manners around non-mobile, landline telephones. Indeed, people generally meet new technologies with a period of bungling exploration toward a manners of proper use. (How much do people follow the etiquette? Well, that’s another issue.)

Old phones

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as having a home telephone became less a luxury for the elite and more a utility for the middle class, concerns about appropriate use arose. (See overview here.) Americans complained about being bothered by inopportune calls, rude callers, snoopers listening in, nearby talkers speaking too loudly, and so on. Both the telephone companies and the etiquette experts of the day counseled telephone users to keep their voices down, enunciate properly, answer a call by identifying themselves, end a call appropriately (the caller’s responsibility), call at convenient times, offer to reimburse a host after making a call from his or her home, and the like.

To recruit rural and working-class customers with cheaper service, the telephone companies put in “party lines” (lines shared by multiple households), and that started yet more controversies, particularly over subscribers listening in on neighbors’ calls. Eavesdropping definitely violated telephone manners – and did so quite frequently – as did hogging the line with what the companies felt was “mere gossip.” Advisers denounced snooping, pleaded for restraint in using the shared service, and offered tactful language for requesting that a neighbor release the “wire.”

Etiquette experts’ advice on how to issue social invitations reveals how the telephone became assimilated into everyday life. At first, manners mavens asserted that invitations to lunch or dine could only be made in writing. They later grudgingly agreed that last-minute arrangements could be handled by telephone. By 1923, Emily Post herself granted that “custom . . . has taken away all opprobrium from the message by telephone and . . . all invitations are sent and answered by telephone.” And in 1938, another expert wrote that the telephone is “becoming more and more the harbinger of invitations to dinner, lunch, cocktails, and week-end parties.” There were, of course, some invitations that ought never, never be phoned in–say, to weddings.

New phones

The 2014 Pew survey points to today’s emerging norms for mobile phone use. Interviewers asked over 3,000 American adults about the appropriate and inappropriate places for using a cell phone. About 75 percent agreed that it was OK to call or text while walking down the the street, on public transportation, and waiting in line. About 90 percent or more said it was not OK at family dinners, office meetings, movies, or religious services. The respondents split about three to two against using cell phones in restaurants (John Dvorak’s beef). The rules are jelling but, of course, many people break them. About 15 percent admitted to using a cell phone at a family dinner. Nine percent of young respondents admitted to using a cell phone in church.

Norman Rockwell’s "The Party Wire," 1919

Norman Rockwell’s “The Party Wire,” 1919

A large majority of Pew’s respondents said that pulling out a cell phone at a “social gathering” is likely to hurt the conversation. Yet also a large majority–and almost every 18-to-29-year-old–admitted to using cell phones at their most recent “social gathering,” most commonly to take a picture, share a group activity with people elsewhere, or get information for people in attendance; many fewer said they used the devices to ignore the group.

Despite the Pew researchers’ largely positive spin on cell phone habits, they did identify acute problems: 53 percent of respondents said that they occasionally or frequently overheard “intimate details” about people talking on their cell phones and 79 percent said that they frequently or occasionally “encounter[ed] people using their cell phone in a loud or annoying manner.”

Etiquette experts, including Emily Post’s heirs have taken note of the cell phone quandaries. The 2011 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette is firm about repressing use of the cell phone, warning readers against pulling it out in many circumstances – while paying for purchases at a sales counter, attending a child’s sports event, in a bathroom stall, for examples. The manual tells readers to keep their voices down, never interrupt a face-to-face conversation or a meeting to take a call or text, and never to do anything, like washing the dishes, while talking on the phone lest it distract from paying attention to the other person.

The new Emily Post even covers texting manners: do not text in theaters, do not text to convey sad news, and do identify yourself if texting someone who does not have your number. And, remember, “handwritten thank-yous remain the gold standard of courtesy [even] in this age…”

As in the case of the older telephone, an etiquette is emerging. It is a clumsy process. The old telephone companies tried to accelerate and shape the process by printing educational advertisements, making “training” films on how to use the phone, and sponsoring curricula for schools to teach proper telephoning to children. …. Maybe not a bad idea this century.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Cell phone etiquette

  1. Great blog! I wonder who the 10% was, when asked if it is okay to have cell phones at family dinner. And the cellphone use at church seems a bit over the top. Thank you!

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