01/17/2014 05:46 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

The Etiquette of Personal Mobile Device Use in Public

Probably one of the more mortifying moments of my mother's life happened when she was at a talk by the Dalai Lama. At a particularly meaningful moment in his speech, the thing we all dread happened: her cellphone started ringing. She was aghast. The audience was aghast. This was back in the days when personal cellphones had only recently become a thing, and my mother rummaged in her bag, found the offending phone, and stabbed wildly at its buttons, trying to silence it -- in vain. Eventually, with the Dalai Lama and two thousand people looking at her, she desperately pulled the phone apart and violently wrestled the battery from its compartment. At last: silence.

It feels like this sort of experience should be a relic of the past. We've had mobile electronic devices for a while. We should know how to work them in public. We should be beyond accidental electronic embarrassment. And yet, just this week I was at another event continually punctuated by beeping, ringing, intrusive texting...

It suddenly occurred to me: perhaps we are indeed beyond accidental electronic embarrassment -- but in a different way. These electronic disruptions and distractions no longer seem to mortify their owners. We all expect to hear a background of beeps ruining dramatic moments of plays, intruding on key moments of esteemed professors' lectures, demonstrating that the friend you thought was paying attention to you was, well, not... We try to tune them out. We are irritated but forgiving, because most of us use mobile electronic devices ourselves -- and we know electronic indiscretions could happen to any of us.

But disrespecting others doesn't have to be an inevitable side effect of modern technologies. I'd like to propose that we needn't succumb to this self-perpetuating cycle of inappropriate bleeping and irritated forgiveness. Advocating for mobile device abstinence is ridiculous -- they are evolving and becoming ever more useful, compelling and ubiquitous. But perhaps we should take responsibility, break the cycle, and reclaim our manners (or at least locate the mute button).

I couldn't find a satisfactory guide for modern mobile device use online -- most of them are about talking on the phone, and we have moved far beyond the cellphone as a tool for phone calls. So here is my personal attempt at describing modern etiquette of mobile device use (cellphones, tablets, and assorted others) in public places, particularly public gatherings like meetings, conferences, and performances where you are in an audience situation and your primary attention ought to be on something happening in the room. Based on my own experiences...

The Etiquette of Mobile Device Use

Clearly there are no hard and fast rules, but it seems reasonable to have some hard and fast goals:


1. Discretion
Your private use of your mobile devices should minimize attracting anyone else's attention. Assume that nobody around you wants to be actively aware that you are using your device, much less what you are doing with it, and be discreet.

2. Respect
You should afford those around you respect whenever using your device:
- Not distracting other people
- Not disrupting other people
- Not ignoring people who are trying to engage with you

3. Safety
You should never put your safety or anyone else's safety at risk by looking down at your device while crossing roads, driving, walking on uneven ground/near lampposts, walking in crowded places, pouring hot coffee, or suchlike activities that require a sensible amount of attention.

Some ways we can start to achieve the goals of mobile device etiquette


When privately using any device in a public place, the default setting on said device should always be mute (unless you're using good headphones). Not just phones. Know where the mute button is on every device and use it.


If using a device in a dark room, sit at the back and/or adjust the brightness of the screen so that it is not visible (and thus distracting) to those sitting behind you. If you can't avoid being distracting, think about not using your device at all, or leaving the room to use it.


Position your device screen to minimize other people's sight of it. Not only can your screen activity engage other people's attention and distract them against their will from the action in the room (passive device pollution), it can also trigger in them an irresistible urge to check things on their own devices -- inattention is catching, even if unwanted.

Engagement, aka if you're in the room, be in the room:

Do not visibly react to the content of your device when your attention is supposed to be in the room. Do not spend all your time at a meeting looking down at your device. Do not abandon a speaker to an audience of downturned heads typing and chuckling about things that clearly have nothing to do with what is being said in the room. We all may glance down at our devices for activities like email and Twitter, as required, and where appropriate. A modern day hazard. Understood. But we should also make eye contact. Smile. Nod. Try to look and be engaged. Otherwise, why are we really there at all? Why did the speaker bother to show up? Why should anyone bother to listen when you're the one talking?

Restrict your public device interaction to the things you actually need to do:

It is almost a modern-day reflex to reach for a mobile device at every opportunity. It is also almost a modern-day reflex to move from the one task you specifically picked up your device to do (e.g. checking email) to clicking on an array of apps and websites, glancing at the news, Facebook, Amazon, thus removing your attention unnecessarily from the happenings in the room. If you pull out your device to take a photograph or check a map, you don't automatically have to also check your bank balance and your LinkedIn messages and the weather. It's okay (indeed desirable) to do what you originally wanted to do, then put your device away and return your full attention to the room.

Resist reaching for the device, where appropriate:

While the reflex to check our devices can be ever present, it's not always appropriate to do so. If a) you know there's no particular need to check your device right now, and b) you know it will negatively impact your own or someone else's experience, then think twice. Like at a wedding. Or a funeral. The theatre. (Or at dinner with friends. A day out with family. A walk in the countryside. Reading a book. Crossing a dangerous road...) For many of us it's quite rare to receive emails that genuinely need to be answered within five minutes. The positive effects of removing our attention from the room to check messages and type responses every five minutes might sometimes be outweighed by the impact of disrespecting people we are currently with in person, and breaking our engagement and concentration (and that of those around us).

It feels that we need to find the balance between using devices effectively and enthusiastically, and not being rude about it. Either that, or it might be time to officially redefine rudeness...