How Telephone Etiquette Has Changed

Understanding social norms for the phone means accepting the fact that the things we call "phones" are actually computers.

When the telephone was new, it was a sensation. And not an altogether positive one. Sure, it was a machine that enabled a person to speak—as if by magic—to another person in another place in real time. But also, what if ghosts were sneaking through the line? This was a real concern.

Another panic point: What if the telephone created an entire “race of left-eared people,” as The New York Times reported in 1904. “Watch a telephone for half a day, and it will be seen that almost every person that uses the instrument will place the receiver to the left ear.”

Along with questions about the physical and supernatural effects of the telephone came deliberations about etiquette. What was the proper greeting? (“Ahoy hoy,” was Alexander Graham Bell’s pick. Thomas Edison preferred “Hello.”)

In 1907, one Times writer lamented the “rampant” rudeness the telephone wrought: “The general use of the telephone, instead of promoting civility and courtesy, is the means of the fast dying out of what little we have left.”

Today, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans frequently have cellphones with them and one-third of those people never turn the things off. This ever-connected culture involves a still-developing set of social rules about what’s acceptable in terms of phone usage. From the Pew report:

For instance, fully 77 percent of all adults think it is generally OK for people to use their cellphones while walking down the street and 75 percent believe it is OK for others to use phones on public transit. But only 38 percent think it is generally OK for others to use cellphones at restaurants and just 5 percent think it is generally OK to use a cellphone at a meeting.

But what does it mean to use a cellphone anyway? Sometimes a phone is just a phone: when you talk into it to a human being who is in another location. But much of the time a phone is other things. It is a device for sending your mother an email, and for instagramming a nice-looking tree branch, and for googling that episode of Punky Brewster when Cherie gets stuck in the old refrigerator. Pew found that people between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to say various uses in public situations were acceptable—and that’s not surprising. This is the same demographic that tends to text more than talk, and texting is a less obtrusive form of cellphone use.

The question of phone etiquette, depending on whom you ask, is really a question about the social acceptability of computer use. (Pew made sure to differentiate between various uses of the device in its survey questions.) Most American cellphone owners now have smartphones, which are as much phones as they are camcorders and publishing devices.

“It is important to note, though, that Americans of all ages generally trend in the same direction about when it is OK or not to use cells in public settings,” according to Pew. “Fully ‘public’ venues are viewed by all age groups as generally acceptable places to use one’s cellphone, while usage in quiet or more intimate settings is mostly frowned upon by all.”

That’s the thing about etiquette, and obtrusiveness for that matter: It’s all situational and, to some degree, personal. Behavior that seems outrageous in one setting is perfectly fine in another. And one person’s happy relationship to her phone, computer, dining companions—sometimes concurrent—is another person’s Emily Post nightmare.

Perhaps the writer of that 1907 Times column—the person who groaned for “what little we have left,” and claimed that the art of letter writing had all but “died out”—would find some comfort in the shift away from voice calls, the return to text. “Let it be hoped that impolite New York will wake up before it is too late,” this person wrote, “and resort, not to its etiquette books, but to common sense and natural kindliness, which, after all, are two things always at the bottom of real courteousness.”