11/06/2011 11:42 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

Cellphone Etiquette: When To Check, And When Not To

Almost 100 percent of the time that I'm looking at my phone, I literally have no reason to be doing so. It didn't buzz or beep or cry and ask to be fed, and I'm not expecting a call or a text or even an email. Like showing up at a party you weren't invited to, some insane compulsion forces us to first look at our phones and then make up a (probably stupid) reason for doing it, like checking Twitter to see if there's been an earthquake in the last five minutes.

And sometimes this is just fine. If you're alone, or on the subway, or in the elevator it's okay to be phone-focused, but there are situations when talking, texting or even just looking at your phone is not okay. These are mainly small social gatherings, i.e. hanging out with one to five people who you know. In this week's column we investigate how to politely check your phone, send a text or make a call without making your friends hate you.

First off, the checking-for-no-reason checking (Twitter, Facebook, absently swiping through menus), needs to stop completely when you're out with friends. Like constantly glancing at the door of the bar, it makes people think you're looking for something better. And this doesn’t mean try to be all secretive about it either, like checking your phone under the table or pulling it halfway out of your pocket. There’s something inherently creepy about someone who treats their phone like a secret, and not a very good secret I might add -- you may not have noticed but the screen glows.

Compulsive phone checking is a drug dealer mannerism, and drug dealer mannerisms have no place at lunch with your mom, or at the movies with your friends or on a date with a cop. Put the phone on silent, put it in your pocket, and try not to think about it for one hour.

One place where you can maybe sneak in a quick check is if your friend is already using their phone for something. But this is really only true if they are doing something legitimate like finding directions to where you're going or telling your other friend where you are. If what they're doing is checking-for-no-reason checking then it's better not to affirm their behavior by engaging in it yourself. Instead take this lapse in conversation to survey your surroundings like a baby gazelle on the great prairie of life.

The moratorium on phone checking is doubly true on dates. Don't check your phone on a date. If you do, your date will think you're setting up another date for later, or texting your ex, or checking the time because you're bored. Dates are already stomach churning enough without you acting like a drug dealer who wants to get back together with his ex. If you really must take a call while on a date, it helps to tell your date who the person is before you pick up, like "Oh it's my mom," and then throw in an eye-roll for good measure to show that it's you and your date against this crazy technological world. If you don't think you can tell your date who it is you're about to answer the call of, don't answer it.

Of course, there are times when you really do need to look at your phone. Times when a minor inconvenience to your companion means a huge convenience for you. In these situations by all means pick up the damn phone and sell those shares, but do it with some class.

If you are expecting some kind of time-sensitive communication, simply warn your companions that there may be a call/text/email that you need to answer. This does not mean you can now leave your phone sitting out on the table or bar. You should never leave your phone on the table, since not only will you be constantly staring at it, but it ensures that everyone is interrupted not only by the call you are expecting but by your phone's every beep, burp and flicker. Put the thing on vibrate, and put it in your pocket. (Note that in casual situations, preemptive warning is only really necessary for groups of less than five people. If your group is larger than that there's no need to make an announcement about your incoming phone call. Probably no one will notice.)

But what if you weren't an important communication, and then you get one that you need to respond to? In this case, turn to the people you’re with and say, “Oh it’s BlahBlah Important Person. Do you mind?” You don’t even really have to wait for them to give their consent, because consent is pretty much implied in this situation just by virtue of their being a human being. If you ask, no one is going to try to stop you from saying a quick thing to your friend, but the important thing is to ask.

Same goes for if you’re expecting a call during a movie, play or dinner. Warn your companion beforehand that you might have to slip out, and then do slip out. There is no excuse for answering your phone in a theater. The same goes for texting. People think texting is so covert, but it really isn't. Don't try to do it under the table. Don't do it in a dark auditorium. If you need to send a text during dinner or a show or some other planned activity leave the room.

Before we all go check our Twitter, let's get back for a moment to the checking-for-no-reason checking. This set of actions (pursed lips, fixed gaze, fingers swiping aimlessly restaurant review apps) is pointless, dehumanizing and stupid-making. According to my dad, who teaches middle school and so knows something about attention deficits, "At a minimum the rule should be you have to look up and visually survey your human and physical environment every half hour for at least 5 continuous minutes." Like never wearing sunglasses while listening to an iPod, this is the kind of rule that keeps you human and might even keep you alive. When you get hit by a car you want people to whisper "What a tragedy" not "She was checking her BlackBerry", especially because what's a BlackBerry?