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The Basic Rules of Cellphone Etiquette
by Denise McCluggage

cell phone etiquetteGone are the days when people whipped out a cell phone to demonstrate how "with it" they were. Now nearly everyone who wants a cellphone -- teenager to drug dealer -- are running about wireless. Hot it may be, but hip it isn't. And thankfully fading in impact are the "Guess where I am?" calls.

Still, there are those who think they are impressing everyone by rearing back to send their bell-like laughter into the unwired ether. And many cellphone calls are the inane (to anyone nearby) "natter" calls full of "...and then I go...and he goes."

No wonder cellphone backlash, even cellphone rage is with us. One report: Two men in a cafe were beaten and their phones destroyed by two others after the pair ignored repeated requests to curb their loud and continuous yakking on their phones.

But to digress into the future: Let us talk now of Instant Communication. Cellphones are perhaps closer to "instant" than anything else we have known, but they are like drum beats to the telegraph. How about tiny chips implanted behind the ear to power thought messages and direct them to the correct recipient? No palm this or e-that. We speak here of direct and instant. Certainly nothing as crude as a handheld gadget that plays a few bars of Beethoven to let you know someone wants a word. Instant.

The cell rule for places of worship: Leave the phone at home, in the car or at least turn it off before you enter. God may call you, but it's unlikely He will use Verizon.

There will be no audible interruption. No patting pockets or rummaging about in bags trying to track down the illusive trilling. No disrupting the foursome at the next table (who frown in unanimity). No bringing up short the preacher in mid parable; the speaker in mid point; the soprano in mid aria. 

However, even with Instant Communication there will be that telltale defocusing of the eyes, that sentence left hanging, that thought sent fleeing. And there's the rub. Those quick little absences of yours tell Present Company that something more important than they are has blipped your radar screen. And that, dear cellphone user, is what's most annoying to Present Company - being tuned out, turned off, dropped out for an unknown on a phone.

That's what is inescapably rude - the disruption of a call, whether by the Instant Communication of the future or the cellphone of today. A call imposes, infringes, presumes, intrudes. That's not nice. Phones have always been intrusive from the time they were on the wall with a crank for summoning "Central." Even today few people within earshot of a ringing phone can ignore it though it may mean dinner or ardor growing cold. In business, the face-to-face customer always seems to be secondary to the prospective one on the phone. Just visit any department store and see. 

As travelers, if we hear our flight is suddenly canceled we are far better served if we immediately get on the phone and not on a long line to await our turn.

Love it or hate it (or both) the phone is supreme. We inherently resent the command of the ring just as we unconsciously respond to it. I think that's why people in restaurants, airport shuttle buses, supermarket check-out lines - all those places where cellphones ring, buzz, tootle, beep or orchestrate - are so annoyed by the beck of a phone. It's because their first impulse is "I'll get it!" But it isn't for them. 

Thus it is not just the cellular phone, but the telephone itself that is the source of the problem. It demands; we comply. That's rankling to us at a basic level. Untethering the phone and allowing it to roam wireless, like the neighborhood's most bothersome dog that has chewed through its leash, has simply given new range to the phone's propensity for mischief.

Keep in mind, the more available you make yourself the more available everyone will expect you to be. People will actually be miffed if you are not instantly and constantly available rather than being pleased when you do call.

We are all in our own way slaves to it, and to be mustered - mistakenly and in unfamiliar places - is off-putting. We resent it. And thus we resent the person who says: "Hello?" into the instrument.

But back to cellphones; resentment of their summoning sound is just a small part of what makes them, as some would have it, a "scourge." Actually, that part can be dealt with easily since silencing them scarcely limits their usefulness. Instead of an audible sound a vibration or a small flashing light on the end of a special pen greatly narrows the circle of those who know a phone is asking to be answered. So the noise of the phone can be handled.

But how about the noise of the user?

It's an interesting matter - why do cellphone users shout into it as if it were a tin can connected to another by a string? I have a friend whose normal tone of voice is perfectly, well, normal. But let him flip open his cellphone and you'd think he's trying to yell at deaf Uncle Lloyd in the lower forty over the pocketa-pocketa of a Fordson tractor.

I said one day at lunch when his bellowed "hello" had turned a few heads, "You know, there's a microphone in that little thing. It can hear you." I later set an exercise for him - if he felt required to change the level of his voice in the transition from face-to-face to phone, try lowering it. He did. It worked famously. Now no one can tell if his talk is phone time or face time. Try it.

And if you can't be heard, don't raise your voice; raise your body and exit to the back hall where the pay phones are. Or go outside among the other jackhammers and shout all you like. Realize that shouting in a restaurant (an office hallway, a bus, a bookstore) is rude and uncalled for, whether you have a phone in front of your face or not. If you are not aware that you are shouting (and some are not) then take your cue from the response of those around you. If anyone looks, lower your voice. 

I have a theory why people shout into cellphones, beyond the fact that the early instruments maybe needed such help. I think the shouting has to do with barely hearing the person on the other end. And just as we raise the decibels to make certain a non-English-speaking person can understand what we are saying, we tend to shout when we can't hear. Make sense? Of course not. We are human.

Here are some basic rules of etiquette for using your cellphone. (Car phone use is another subject.)

First, think of your phone as a tool for emergencies (i.e. the baby sitter to say that your child has made a hole in one of a neighbor kid's head with your nine iron; the hospital to say your father's long-awaited kidney is on the helicopter; your staff to alert you the jury is returning; your neighbor to say Ed McMahon is hovering about your door with a massive rectangle of cardboard.

Second, think of your phone as a portable answering machine. It takes messages and when you are in an appropriate place, say your car BEFORE you unpark it; a park bench far from anyone else; a phone booth (!) no one else wants (phone booths are fairly quiet), etc. 


  • Ask if there are special restrictions on phone use.

  • Initiate only essential calls.

  • Keep conversations brief to terse. Use an at-table call primarily to make an appointment for a more appropriate time for a call-back.

  • If you simply must be available you can put your phone on "vibrate" - say for your anticipated dinner companion to tell you that he is caught in traffic like a grape in aspic so have another drink. (If your phone does not have a vibrate capability maybe it's time for a new one.)

  • Practice speaking in a quiet conversational tone. If no one looks your way I think you've got it.

Theaters, concerts, meetings etc:

  • Check at the entrance to be sure your phone is "off." If you're compulsive, check for voice mail at breaks. (Remember, you used to have to go home to check your messages.)

  • If the only time you could get tickets to take the kids to "The Lion King" coincides with the only time a major mucky-muck is available for a conference call, put your phone on "vibrate" close to your heart and dash for the exit at the first tremor.

  • If you forget both "off" and "vibrate" and your phone rings, turn it off instantly. (And as unobtrusively as possible so nobody will suspect you are the jerk responsible). No matter what: DO NOT ANSWER IT!

Museums and art galleries:

  • Consider the reasons you are in such a place and be there totally. Turn off the phone, or better yet check it with your coat or tote bags.

Someone else's house or office:

  • Turn off your phone. If you are expecting a call of extreme importance, ask if it is acceptable that you receive an inaudible signal so you can leave the room to take the call.

Places of Worship:

  • Leave the cellphone at home, in the car or at least turn it off before you enter. God may call you but it's unlikely He will use Verizon.

Airline Travel:

  • Follow airline personnel instructions. Usually cellphones must be off as soon as the aircraft doors are closed until the doors open again on arrival. (Unless otherwise informed on long apron delays etc.)

  • Be particularly diligent if you have a cellphone with you but haven't used it lately. It could be on; there is adequate evidence the electronics within can interfere with those that guide the plane.

Face-to-face with someone:

  • Do not talk on the phone while someone is trying to take your order in a restaurant, locate an upgrade for you on an airplane or return the shoes you had half-soled. Attend to the face-to-face business totally even if you have to ask the one on the line to hold. Continuing to use the phone while nodding and signaling to the person in front of you is belittling and so extremely rude I've only seen the obnoxiously self-important do it.

Now here's a thought: Do you really want to be available all the time? Does that truly make you more productive, or does it just spread the productivity thinner over more time?

I once read studies of supermarkets vying to stay open longer than their competition. Then surveys demonstrated that beyond a point they were not necessarily increasing business, but rather spreading it out. And expensively so.

Keep in mind, the more available you make yourself the more available everyone will expect you to be. People will actually be miffed if you are not instantly and constantly available rather than being pleased when you do call.

Think: Do you really need to be - or want to be - "connected" 24/7/365? And ask: what's it doing for that tension across your upper back?

If you can summon the discipline to be unavailable at certain times - and even for uncertain lengths of time - it's doubtful much will change, except your peace of mind. I remember from childhood a friend's mother at an eat-over-supper halting her daughter's urge to jump up and answer the phone. She told her: "If it isn't important you've wasted the effort; if it is important they'll call back." 

And that was before answering services or recording devices picked up after a few rings. That phone call was like the tree in an unpeopled forest: it fell and was forgotten, unnoticed forever. The world still turned.