SharpMan’s Guide to Cell Phone Etiquette

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article

Cell phone Etiquette…

  • In General
  • In a restaurant.
  • At the doctor's office or in the bank.
  • In an elevator.
  • A word on cell phone symphonics.

At Work

  • In your office.
  • During business meetings.
  • At a business lunch or dinner.

At Play

  • At a social lunch.
  • On a date or at a party.
  • Movies, performances, house of worship.

Guidelines from Other Countries

SharpMan’s Guide to Cell Phone Etiquette

Responding to the persistent ring of your cell phone at an inopportune moment can be, at best, annoying to those around you, and, at worst, rude. How many times have we all sighed when a cell phone rings in the bank, or become annoyed at having to listen to someone else's conversation in a restaurant?

Maddening tunes and beeps can disturb your movie, your meal or your concentration at work. So how can you, as a cell phone user, avoid being considered rude? Follow these simple SharpEtiquette guidelines to continue enjoying the convenience of the digital umbilical cord, while maintaining your Sharp image:

General Use Etiquette

As in all other aspects of your life, the use of your cell phone should be dictated by the guidelines of polite conduct. For example, it is common courtesy to stand several feet back behind a customer using an ATM. Similarly, your cell phone use should be tempered to avoid entering other people’s personal space — in this case, their personal audio space. Etiquette advisor Joan Alston-Stucky advises that cell phone etiquette should simply "display courteous behavior." When considered in this light, suddenly cell phone etiquette becomes much less of a mystery. Other tips on managing cell phone disruptions in public spaces follow:

In a restaurant. Cell phone use in restaurants has become a contentious issue between users and those around them. Nonetheless, a few things are clear: (a) It's doubtful that anyone else would be interested in your phone conversation and (b) talking in the middle of the dining room just disturbs others and draws attention to you. Even the persistent rings and beeps can be annoying.

Restaurant manager Karl Koebberling, from Atlanta, says that the worst thing he sees is someone sitting at the table talking on the phone and ignoring the server trying to take an order. "I've even seen cell phone users expect the server to stand there waiting while they finish their conversation. It's as if they think they're the only ones in the restaurant. And that's not even mentioning the fact that they're being rude to the people at their own table and disturbing those at other tables."

So what should you do?

"Turn it off," says etiquette advisor Liz Thompson. Thompson is President and founder of the Metis Group, a consulting company that offers training in US business etiquette. However, she does give some concession to those who must be accessible. "Get a vibrating beeper, something that will not disturb other people." Alternatively, some cell phones can be put on "silent mode" or "vibrate;" this is a great option for digital diners.

Thompson cautions that answering the cell phone at your table is not good etiquette, so if you must take a call, excuse yourself and take the call out of other diners’ hearing range — either in a lounge or outside. Of course, jumping up and down every few minutes isn't going to impress those eating with you, so only answer the calls that can't wait. Making calls should be even more limited — emergencies only — and, again, excuse yourself to a less populated area.

Moreover, courtesy must be shown to restaurant workers, as well as fellow diners. Koebberling recommends having someone else at the table order for you if you are talking on the phone, "that way the whole table won't have to wait until you are ready to order and the server can get on with his or her job."

At the doctor's office or in the bank. Liz Thompson believes that if you find yourself alone in the doctor's office, talk away. "However, if there are others there too, take the call outside." Leaving the cell phone on "vibrate" or "silent mode" will cause less of a disturbance. Make a point of only answering essential calls.

When you find yourself in a line, like at the bank, it is impossible to excuse yourself, so turn the phone off and wait until your business has been concluded. Forcing others in line to listen to your conversation is rude. Any calls you miss while waiting can be quickly returned when you get back to your car.

In an elevator. Traditional elevator etiquette dictates that riders enter quietly and turn around to face the door, arms at their sides. This practice ensures that the number of people for which the elevator was designed to accommodate will all fit into the space and ride comfortably. Before the days of cell phones, in fact, it was common practice for groups of riders to suspend social conversation for the duration of the ride — to maintain the private nature of their conversation and to be courteous to the other riders.

Today all this has gone out the window. Cell phone users conducting phone conversations while walking simply carry their communications into an elevator full of people. Suddenly a small room of strangers is required to enter the caller’s personal affairs. More often than not, due to the nature of elevator shaft construction, cellular and digital signals are cut off mid-ride, resulting in "Hello? Hello?! I’m losing you…wait...no, I’m losing you! I’ll call you RIGHT BACK!"

To avoid being rude to other riders, conclude your phone conversation while waiting for the elevator to arrive. If you must, call your party back once you arrive at your destination. If you really must keep talking, consider delaying your elevator ride — if only to avoid losing the signal.

A word on cell phone symphonics. Perhaps one of the attributes that annoys cell-phobs most is the manner in which many cell phones ring — or more accurately sing. Consider how your cell phone alerts you to an incoming call: Is it one of those short, traditional-land-line-style rings? Would Alexander Graham Bell recognize it? Or is it a digital rendition of a famous concerto?

If your ringer is more aptly described by the latter, consider a change. Musical cell phone rings tend to be louder, longer and more disruptive. And because of the whimsy associated with their tunes, they often make their owners look, well, dumb.

Just think of it this way: would you bring a "boom box" with you wherever you go? To the bank? The office? Into a restaurant? Sure, this might be OK for an intramural soccer game, but for most other places, it’s pretty rude. To minimize glares and maximize your Sharp demeanor, consider picking a short, traditional ring.

Etiquette for Work

Even if your cell phone is your work tool, consider the following guidelines for being more respectful to your colleagues:

In your office. SharpMen who work in an "open-plan" office (i.e., "cube farm") may have experience with inconsiderate neighbors taking cell phone calls while sitting next to a direct dial land-line, and perhaps even walking up and down the halls while talking. This is inexcusable. In an environment that requires all employees to be considerate when taking land-line calls or keeping voices in check when chatting with colleagues, adding cell phone concertos to the mix is thoughtless and unprofessional.

Instead, turn your cell phone off while you’re in the office. Most cell phones come equipped with voice mail, so leave a recording asking callers to contact you at your office phone number during working hours. If you’re expecting an important call, put your phone on "vibrate" or a low-volume setting and when the call comes in, excuse yourself and go outside or into a conference room.

If you have a private office, taking cell phone calls while you’re alone won’t disturb neighbors, but should still be kept in check. Don’t take calls when you have colleagues in your office. It’s uncomfortable for others to sit "captive" while you discuss private matters. Allow voice mail to pick up and return the call later.

During business meetings. According to Liz Thompson, while cell phones are an accepted part of the business world, taking a call during a meeting wastes other participants’ time — and wasting a colleague’s time is never acceptable in the business environment. In order to be courteous and professional, all SharpMen should focus on the task or meeting they’re engaged in. To ensure that you look professional and attentive, turn your cell phone off and return calls when the meeting is over.

Etiquette for Play

With cell phone usage rates coming down, many SharpMen have begun to use their cell phones as their primary contact numbers. Often this results in social calls coming in while the SharpMan is hanging out with friends. In Europe and some urban centers in Asia, it is not uncommon to see groups of friends sitting at cafes, each one on a cell phone with other friends, who, in turn, are no doubt sitting at some other café, ignoring whomever is with them. Aside from being annoying to the guys (or SharpWomen) hanging out with you, this practice seems a bit schizophrenic. Try to pick a team and play; put your phone on "silent mode" or "vibrate" and avoid answering calls you know are simply social.

As for work-related calls after hours, while it’s not hard to see how SharpMen who work in high-pressure environments have a hard time leaving their cell phones behind during the workday, ideally even the hardest working guys are able to leave all that behind once their 15-hour day comes to a close. Of course, this isn’t always the case. For you die-hard SharpMen, consider the following social cell phone etiquette guidelines:

At a social lunch. Etiquette advisor Michelle Lewis explains, "I do not like to see people talking on cell phones in restaurants. This especially holds true when a person is ignoring his or her [dining] partner to talk on the phone." Such behavior, Michelle believes, is "inherently rude."

While business colleagues may be more tolerant of your cell phone, those you dine with socially will be less understanding and will expect your full attention. Why? Today, most SharpMen are busy, and opportunities to schedule social lunches are scarce. When you squander these few social openings with time on the phone, you cheat yourself and are likely to annoy the friend who’s taken time out of his schedule to see you.

During social time with friends, the cell phone should be turned off and tucked away out of sight. Absent an emergency (see suggestions about "silent mode" and "vibrate" above), you can always return calls within 45 minutes when you’re back in the car or at the office.

On a date or at a party. Got a date? Going to a mixer? Leaving the phone behind is always the best option. This way there's no temptation to answer it, and you’re free to give your full attention to the person/people you are with, without interruption.

Does this seem too stringent for you? Think again. When you make and accept calls while on a date, you're essentially ignoring your date and those around you, i.e. you’re wasting the "social" time that she’s set aside for you. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if your date spent her evening taking calls from work — or worse — calls from other friends? Besides, no one likes to spend time with a guy playing "big shot" during potentially romantic moments.

If there is a call that you simply must take, it is always a good idea to tell your date, hosts or guests that you are expecting a call and must therefore leave your cell phone on. When the call comes in, excuse yourself and talk in an area away from everyone else. Keep the conversation as short as you can and then turn the phone off for the rest of the evening. "Don't use the phone unless it's extremely important," says Liz Thompson.

Movies, performances, seminars, houses of worship, formal events, etc. Whenever you attend a movie, a live performance, a formal event, or any event where large groups of people gather to focus on someone other than you, turn off your cell phone. No matter how urgent the call, if your cell phone rings, an entire auditorium or banquet hall (or church congregation!) will make it clear to you just how inconsiderate you are. To avoid the embarrassment, simple turn your cell phone to "silent mode" or — better yet — turn it off.

Guidelines From Other Countries

Jane MacRoss, an expert on Australian etiquette, explains that "the protocol in Australia is to turn mobiles off at formal events, in public places and even restaurants."

In many countries, movie theater "previews" include a message asking the audience to turn off their cell phones.

MTN, a leading network operator in Africa, provides customers with a list of etiquette rules when they buy a cell phone. They advise turning the phone off at all social functions, in meetings and doctors’ offices. They opt for putting it on "silent mode" in restaurants and keeping calls to a minimum. To take a call, excuse yourself and talk in private.

In countries like the UK and Ireland, cell phones have become amazingly popular, although the phenomenon is still new, so etiquette rules have not been established yet. Anyone watching the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in July would have seen the tennis players’ concentration constantly interrupted by cell phones.

Still have questions? While cell phone etiquette continues to evolve, you’ll never be unSharp if you simply model your personal cell phone etiquette code on common sense and courtesy. Etiquette advisor Liz Thompson advises, "If it's going to annoy people then don't do it."

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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