Why Not . . . Practice Courteous Cell Phone Etiquette?
Wednesday July 31, 2013

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According to a recent U.N. report, six of the seven billion people around the world have a cell phone. The statistic is astonishing especially since mobile phones have be around for less than 30 years.

The staggering number also indicates that since we all have them, we should all be empathetic about how to use them in a polite manner while surrounded or engaged with other people. However, every so often I will encounter people who are oblivious to their environment and be completely consumed by their phone – speaking loudly, speaking in an inappropriate location for all to hear how so-and-so’s will was coming along (not kidding, such a discussion occurred in the waiting room for all to hear), putting someone on speaker who doesn’t realize they are speaking intimately to a room full of strangers, etc.

I will be the first to admit, my smart phone is always with me, I do check it often, and I’m sure I’ve committed my own faux pas from time to time, but as with most situations in life when working with people, common sense very rarely leads you astray. If we would put ourselves in another person’s shoes who has to listen to our conversation or be heard by strangers when we think we are only speaking to our love, what would be the best response to help everyone feel most at ease? More often than not, I think the below tips for practicing courteous cell phone etiquette would be on everyone’s list.

1. Become the Master

Unlike Pavlov’s dog responding every time he hears a bell, we can choose to exercise more self-control. Just because the phone rings, a tweet chirps or a text message swooshing into our inbox doesn’t mean we have to reflexively respond immediately.

In fact, studies have shown that responding to each alert that our social media brings our attention to can actually increase stress (source). On the flipside, studies have also shown that living in the moment increases happiness and thus reduces stress. So when we the “beep” occurs and we respond, we are taken out of the present and thus let go more control of how to create a state of contentment.

Becoming the master of one’s cell phone is to choose designated times throughout your day in which your phone will have to wait – dinner, sleep, dates, time with your children, driving, etc. And in doing so, we create a life of balance, mastering our cell phone rather than letting it master us.

2. Not at the Table

Since we are now the master of our cell phones and not the other way around, carving out time to spend with those we love and be present to enjoy the food we are eating is a way of setting healthy priorities.

While dining alone for lunch in Paris earlier this month, I immediately sat down and placed my phone on the table out of habit. The waiter promptly, yet politely, asked me to put it away as that is not what their restaurant wanted to advertise, but rather an environment of conversation, food appreciation and pleasure. What a novel concept! A waiter in the United States wouldn’t dare ask this of their patrons, and quite honestly, I wish they would. A cell phone free zone goes a long way in creating an environment of being present consequently creating conversation and appreciation.

3. Thoughtful Use of Speaker Phone

This particular piece of etiquette is a tremendous pet peeve of mine. Always ask someone if you can put them on speaker phone and let them know who is in the room with you so that they can edit what they say or choose to say no to the request. Never assume what they have to share is something they want everyone to know about.

If you have to use speaker phone to hear and others are in the room, don’t take the call.

4. Excuse Yourself

As we all know, our phones will ring when we are in the middle of a variety of engagements. Some we can excuse ourselves from to take the call and some we cannot (that’s what voicemail is for). But if we are in a situation where we aren’t conversing with others, but still surrounded by people, why not excuse ourselves to some place where it is more private so that we aren’t disturbing those around us.

5. Speak Quietly in Public

If for some reason we can’t excuse ourselves – on public transportation, waiting in line, etc – speak quietly. And if doing so will make it impossible  to have a conversation, don’t answer the phone. Send a quick text, letting the caller know you will call them back when you able.

6. Avoid Personal Topics while in Public

As I mentioned in the introduction, the assumption that personal issues are perfectly fine to share with strangers while on a phone call is baffling to me. Whether we know the people in the room or not, exercising decorum in what is revealed shows respect for those around you, respect for the person on the phone (after all, they don’t know who’s listening to their personal conversation) and respect for your own privacy.

7. Silence

When attending the movies, the theater or any other event in which prior to the performance it is politely asked of the audience to turn their phones off – do so. If you have issues with authority, that’s your issue, but choosing to turn off your ringer so that everyone can enjoy the performance they’ve paid to see is being respectful to the situation that you yourself wanted to attend as well. If you prefer to talk/text/tweet while watching, rent it when it comes out on DVD.

8. Choose a Tactful Ringtone

Similar to having a private conversation in public with a room full of strangers, the ringtone you choose reveals immediately to those around you a glimpse into your life (or at least an idea of who you are). Perhaps you want to make a statement, but choose to do it by writing a letter to the editor or via your actions, not with the ring of your phone.

9. Don’t Text or Talk While Drivin

All but nine states in America ban texting while driving and nine states ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. However, even if your state or country does allow one or both of these activities, live by a higher standard for the safety of yourself and others. And while using hands-free and Bluetooth are perfectly legal and much safer as there will be times when you need to make or take a call while traveling, studies have proven that even these can lessen a driver’s reaction time. Ask yourself before taking a look at that text or answering that call, is worth it or can it wait?  Again, choose to be the master.

10. Give Face to Face Conversations Priority

“When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

While technology has certainly allow for us to communicate more readily and with people located around the world, it has not decreased the value of face-to-face communication. And when we choose to make the time to spend time with those people – whether in our personal or professional lives – making that time a priority and letting calls, texts and tweets go unanswered immediately conveys to the person we are with that our time with them tops our list, consequently strengthening that relationship.

11. Please & Thank You even when Texting

“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.”
– Dale Carnegie

No matter which mode of communication we are using, common courtesies should still be included. Beginning a text with a demand without offering a “Good morning”!” or “Please” or “Would it be possible?” sets a tone of disrespect and disregard for the person on the receiving end.

The same should be said for ending the back and forth conversation. Even if you simply send a “Thank you” or “Thanks for thinking of me” after someone messages you a “Good luck!”, make it habit of being respectful with your texts as much as you would with a face-to-face conversation.

12. Facebook Tagging

While I don’t have a personal Facebook account, I have had the instance of being tagged or included in a photo onto someone’s wall when I wasn’t aware of it. And I must say, in some instances, even if the photo was perfectly benign, it was an image from my personal life that I would have preferred to have kept private.

So whenever you are posting images with other people or tagging them, make sure you are certain that they wouldn’t mind, and when in doubt, don’t (or at least ask to find out one way or the other).


The purpose of owning and using a cell phone is to simplify and provide more freedom, but if we allow it to do the opposite – complicate our lives and tether us, it isn’t serving its intended purpose. I by no means am the model user of a smart phone, but I am always striving to use it in such a way that is helpful to creating a more productive business, stronger relationships and a more conscientious and respectful way of living.

I would love to hear how you have become the master of your cell phone. Please share in the comments below or on Facebook how you use your cell phone in a courteous manner that continues to enhance the quality of your life.


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7 thoughts on “Why Not . . . Practice Courteous Cell Phone Etiquette?

  1. Oh yes, I hear you! Have one friend in particular who is an absolute shocker! Ticks all the boxes! I’m actually too lazy to be micro-managing or maybe too polite to answer my phone when I am at appointments or functions. Isn’t voicemail for this? Although I understand parents jumping on phone calls as a just in case of emergency. Many salient points. 😀

  2. Shannon, this is a brilliant posting! I feel some people think that it makes them look important or in high demand. Like you, I know I have committed a faux pas as well, but I try to not inflict others with my private conversations! Thank you for a great reminder!

  3. Shannon, although this post is spot on, it is a little sad to think that we have moved so far from common sense and courtesy that we need a reminder.

    First and foremost be present with the people you are with, do not check your phone and text, etc. Second, be kind and courteous to the people around you. I am dreading the day they allow cell phones on the plane.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I was just thinking the same thing during my travels this summer. There is a time and place, and being present, finding the small beauty in the day without the intrusion of the cell phone is something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Thank you for sharing.

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