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Cell Phone Etiquette & Manners | 5 Rules to Follow

Updated on January 6, 2015

Proper Cell Phone Etiquette

When I was growing up, my parents expected us to act with decorum from an early age. We were taught how to behave at the dinner table, how to answer the door and the phone, and how to make polite conversation. I grew up just before cell phones were popularized, but if they'd been around I'm sure my parents would have taught us cell phone etiquette as well.

If you're concerned with learning proper cell phone etiquette, you aren't alone! This new technology has changed the way we communicate, and that change has happened quickly. Not a day goes by that I don't witness someone being terribly rude with their mobile device.

This article will talk about 5 simple and practical ways you can improve your cell phone etiquette and manners. Not only will people think better of you, you'll also have more opportunity for real human interaction. Let's get started!

1) Talking Face-to-Face? Leave Your Cell Phone Alone

This is the primary rule. If you only hang on to one bit of cell phone etiquette, this is the one to take home. When you're talking to someone, don't use your cell phone, period!

I've been in so many conversations where, mid conversation, the phone rings... and the person answers it! This is a huge no-no.

When I was younger, if we had company over and the phone rang, we were not allowed to answer it. Especially at dinner! The idea is that it's important to give someone your undivided attention during an interaction.

It's tempting to do because we don't want to miss a call, but proper cell phone etiquette dictates that conversation trumps a phone call.

What About an Emergency?

If the call is urgent, here's what you do. First, apologize and excuse yourself. Second, leave the room. Go to the hallway or into the bathroom. Lastly, keep the phone call brief, and return to the person you were talking with and apologize again.

What About a Cashier?

This is an important offshoot of this rule: do NOT answer your cell phone while talking to a cashier! This one gets broken all the time, and it's incredibly rude.

You are dealing with a person, not a machine. Give them the respect they deserve: a smile, polite conversation, and a thank you at the end of the transaction!


2) Texting / Emailing & Proper Cell Phone Etiquette

This one is closely related to the first rule, but it's complex enough to deserve its own explanation. Texts are a common form of quick communication, and emails are constantly funnelling into our phones. That little buzz or chime is so irresistible: who contacted me, and what did they say?

If you're in conversation with someone, resist the urge to check your messages, texts and emails. Too often, I'll be talking to someone and their phone will chime. They pull it out and glance down (sometimes in mid-sentence) to read their screen!

Why is this a bad choice? The main issue is that you're communicating (non-verbally) that the conversation you're having isn't interesting.

The only situation where it's OK to be staring at your screen while talking to someone is when you're sharing something on that screen with them (IE hunting for a photo to show them). If that's the case, turn your body and allow them to view the screen as you hunt. This brings them in and doesn't shut them out.

If you're trying to improve your cell phone manners and etiquette, don't be glancing down at your screen. If it's too great of a temptation, shut the phone off, or turn it on silent so you won't be distracted.

3) Cell Phone Manners in Public Places

Because we can be reached just about anywhere there is a cell phone signal, it's tempting to answer your phone at any given time. That is a huge faux pas!

Here's the issue: you're forcing everyone within earshot to be subjected to your phone conversation. Actually, it's more of a half conversation, which is the problem.

I've talked with a few people who don't see how this violates cell phone etiquette rules, but it does. You're disturbing the peace of people around you, and you're subjecting them to a one-sided conversation that can be pretty distracting.

In particular, avoid answering your phone and having a conversation in places where there's a 'captive audience'. Examples include the doctor's office, any sort of waiting room, and public transportation (like the subway).

If you absolutely must answer your phone in a crowded place, make it as brief as possible. When I hear someone say "Can I call you back? I'm on the train" it gladdens my heart!

Note: Fiddling with your cell phone quietly (texting, games, ebooks, etc.) is totally fine in public spaces. Just make sure not to walk while you're doing it. Which brings us to the next rule...

4) Cell Phone Use While Walking

This bit of cell phone etiquette is so straightforward that I'm amazed I have to include it, but apparently I must.

Every day in every major city, people walk around while staring at their screen. They bump into other people, signposts and vehicles, and yet it doesn't stop.

This rule is staggeringly simple: if you need to read, text or email anything on your cell phone screen, stop walking! Step to the side so you're out of people's way, finish what you need to do, and only start walking again once it's back in your pocket or purse.

Why is it rude? By texting and walking, you're forcing people to dodge and swerve around you. You might not notice this, but it's extremely annoying!

Not only that, it's unsafe! We've all seen the video of the woman walking into a fountain (Oh you haven't? I've included it to the right), but imagine what happens when someone inadvertently steps in front of a bus, or into an open pit. Not a pretty picture!

Train the world to wait for your response. Proper cell phone etiquette and your health and safety hang in the balance!

5) Proper Cell Phone Manners in the Theatre

The final rule addresses a situation that I find baffling, but it's a real issue. People tend to use their cell phone in the theatre. This is the height of rudeness, and it has to stop!

In a dark theatre, you might think you're being unobtrusive when you check your texts or emails. But that little LED screen shines like a beacon. It's unbelievably distracting to other patrons.

Incredibly, people seem to react strongly to being told to shut off their cell phones in a theatre. Frankly, there is no law prohibiting it, but proper cell phone etiquette demands that you shut that device off for the duration.

Live theatre or music is even more important. There is nothing more distracting to an actor or performer than seeing someone tapping away on their phone. It not only 'takes them out' of whatever scene they're performing, it also communicates that you're bored and disinterested in their performance. Very rude!

As soon as you sit down, just turn your phone off completely and remove the distraction.

What Happens if I Ignore Proper Cell Phone Etiquette?

Cell Phone Etiquette: Too Many Rules?

Ultimately, being polite with your cellular phone isn't difficult, and it doesn't require memorizing a bunch of rules. Just be aware of the people around you, and how your actions affect them!

Ask yourself if answering your phone right now will irritate someone nearby. If yes, then find a private place to do it.

Did I miss any good rules? Please feel free to share them in the comments section below. I'd love to hear your cell phone rudeness stories too. Thanks for reading!


Is it rude to answer your phone in public (train, doctor's office, etc)?

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