The new guide to etiquette, smartphone style

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With the explosion of smartphones in the last few years, I’ve been pondering the effects that the technology has on good manners, what habits have sprung up, and if there’s a right and wrong way to go about your mobile connections. There’s only one real place to start on an adventure into politeness, so let’s start at Debretts.

For over three hundred years, Debretts has been seen as the quintessential guide to etiquette and manners in the British aristocracy. And yes, they’ve got a section on mobile etiquette. Most of it should be obvious to many, but I wonder how many people still have problems with their ringtones, the volume of their voice when in a call, and to stop using the phone when being served in a bank.

I especially like “People in the flesh deserve more attention than a gadget, so wherever possible turn off your phone in social situations".

All of this is fine, but it doesn’t really reach out to the new world of tweets, texts, check-ins, Facebooks and push email. It’s an issue that many people will avoid (can you imagine the number of conversations at Mobile World Congress that will happen with nobody looking at each other, but down at a tiny screen?)

I’ve got my own little rule of thumb. Most of the time a phone should stay in a pocket (or in my case a sporran when at a conference). If I have to have my phone out and close by, I will put it on the table (in silent mode), but I’ll make a point of putting it face down, so the screen is not on display. Nothing to distract me from who I am talking to.

Patrick Rhone has spotted a similar trend as well, but coupled with airplane mode rather than a physical orientation:

I recently had lunch with a dear friend whom I had not seen in a while. This friend has a job that places him in a position that is far more important to the organization than even he readily lets on... He picked me up and, shortly after getting in his car, his iPhone was all business – ringing, beeping, and buzzing with potential activity. He silenced it, we continued our conversation, and just a couple of minutes later, the iPhone was back to business again. At this point, he picked it up and placed it Airplane Mode, which cuts wi-fi and 3G but leaves the phone otherwise functional.

My first thought was, wow, what a show of respect for me and our time together. I was honoured and humbled by this simple act that broadcasted that nothing (at that moment) was more important to him (and, trust me, he has other things far more important).

Two things here. The first is that it is a classic paradigm from Debretts – you show respect for who you are dealing with, and while not ostentatious, you make sure they realise that their time is your sole focus.

The second is the choice of airplane mode. Yes, it isolates the phone, and puts it “off grid”, but it leaves every other function available. It could be as simple as sharing a family picture, or a product sample in the gallery, but the point is that if the smartphone is going to be involved in the conversation, it’s got to be for all the right reasons (such as making an appointment in the Calendar).

Everyone always talks about the change that the smartphone has brought to communication, down to speed and accessibility, but it’s also changing how conversations can happen in real life. In Victorian times, the telephone was banished to a tiny room, out of sight, as it was an aberration – now the norm is to be ready at a moment's notice to talk to someone at the end of a digital line, text or cute picture of a cat you get sent.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Think not about your smartphone, but about you and how you are perceived when you use it in public. You’d be surprised how small gestures to put the phone back in its place will improve you and your image.

-- Ewan Spence, Feb 2011.