How Not to Be a Jerk With Your Stupid Smartphone

Updating etiquette and ethics for a digital age

Ed Yourdon/Flickr

As technology expands our communicative reach, new opportunities to be rude inevitably arise. Some people overreact to this incivility by turning to uniform and mechanical etiquette rules, hoping to make things better by constraining choices and limiting situational judgment. But for societies that value diversity and autonomy, general mandates—like expecting everyone to turn off their cell phones in theaters—only work in exceptional cases.

The effects of our cellphones, computers, tablets, and who-knows-what-else on the domestic sphere has become a major cause of concern. Some worry that friends and family are rude to each other, glued as they are to their mobile phones, each alone, together. A popular remedy revolves around a simple game: When you meet up with folks you care about, everyone should put their phones in a stack, and either not retrieve them until the gathering ends, or else pay a penalty for early use, like picking up a dinner bill.

While plenty attest that this is a wonderful ritual for boosting attentiveness and pro-social behavior, others lament that banning technology unduly narrows the possibilities for how folks can interact. If you're with a crowd that can bond over online information that’s collectively interesting, and if everyone is ready to put away their phones after the devices are communally used, phone stack rules can be overly restrictive. After all, the crowd that binds themselves to the stack’s power probably does so more because participants recognize personal limits—difficulty resisting the siren call of texts and tweets—than because they lack an intuitive sense of how to properly behave.

Given variations in willpower, resolve, and interactive styles, some phone stack users deserve praise for being conscientious. However, we should avoid assuming that those who reject phone stack norms inherently are selfish, apathetic, or unwilling to take active steps to promote meaningful engagement. And, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that on occasion it can be quite reasonable to turn to technology to escape from face-to-face interaction. When stuck with an insensitive crowd, tuning out only appears rude to outsiders who lack the context to appreciate the justified resistance.

New research shows that the quality of our intimate relationships probably is affected more by whether folks share the same values than if they adhere to any particular etiquette standard. In a manuscript under review about mobile phone use, communication studies professor Jeffrey Hall and Microsoft researchers Nancy Baym and Kate Miltner argue that there’s no real evidence supporting the assertion that people who are prone to burying their faces in screens will be stuck having low-quality close relationships. Instead, they found that what matters most is compatibility—believing that your friends or partners endorse the same norms you do.

What about the interminable debate over how to write an e-mail? Call me old fashioned, but I’m a fan of formally composed ones that submit us to a convention designed to explicitly acknowledge the reader’s distant presence. I believe the format conveys respect for the addressee, emphasizing the point that information isn’t just being composed, but also shared between flesh-and-blood people. Some go further, though, and believe this practice should be a general rule—that dispensing with formality is an affront to those who deserve respect. But given shifts in sensibility, it is perfectly valid to acknowledge that some people can read a thoughtfully composed note that jumps right to the point without feeling disrespected in the least. Others are rightly suspicious of gestures that merely give the appearance of virtue. They can reasonably find signoffs a pretentious relic from a bygone era.

Things get tricky when we're dealing with power imbalances, say between a professor and a student. To make the grade, students are often advised to be formal when contacting their instructors. But professors, like everyone else, have different views on the situation, and so the deferential approach simply isn't necessary for every one. Indeed, some professors prefer the cut-to-the-chase approach and view succinctness as a means of respecting their busy time.

A similar issue divides faculty on whether computers should be allowed in the classroom at all, and, if so, whether restrictions should be placed on their use, such as a no-Facebook rule. “Luddites” completely ban laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. And, we’re even beginning to see instructors asking students to create phone stacks in the front of the room.

While some professors justify their decisions in fairly narrow ways, saying the selected restrictions work well for their particular group of students, others believe prohibitions are part of best practice and should be generally adopted. Ultimately, good reasons can support nearly any limit—especially ones that stem from acknowledging how easily multi-tasking students can distract others—but there simply are too many disciplinary differences and variations in pedagogical style and educational activities to demean tech-fueled classrooms as inherently discouraging mutual concern. In some cases, disconnecting students from digital tools actually impedes what they can learn, how they can learn it, and who they can share their insights with.

And let’s not forget what happened over the summer when a UK cashier “refused to serve a customer because she was on her mobile phone.” Many came to her defense, arguing that it is rude to check out of a store while on the phone. Some believe the time has come for society to adopt a new etiquette rule that supports this judgment and shields the working class from gross insensitivity. Others, however, worry that categorical application of the rule will penalize folks who are skilled enough to handle being on the phone while also using body language that acknowledges the humanity of the person who is checking them out.

Now, what about the most common tech-etiquette refrain, the proclamation from etiquette gurus that being respectful means always prioritizing the person you're with in person? While this sentiment has a nice ring in the abstract, life is way too messy for the advice to be good, particularly when increased connectivity increases our obligations. In many situations, we’re stuck managing two contexts at the same time: each can come with obligations, and the obligations can conflict.

So, there are plenty of suggestions for adopting general tech-etiquette rules. And in many instances, the rules are offered because folks don't think civility or care is possible without them—that limited willpower and selfishness will flourish in the absence of the restrictions. While it would be nice if the social disruption inherent to our increasingly complex technological age could be micro-managed in a technocratic way, there's simply too much diversity in circumstances, sensibilities, and skill for etiquette lists containing categorical dos and don’ts to be generally desirable. Simplicity is reassuring, but there’s no way to escape from the existentially uneasy position of constantly experimenting, ceaselessly observing what others expect, and using good judgment to make necessary adjustments.