Help Slate set some ground rules for cell phone etiquette.

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March 9 2010 4:44 PM

Can You Text Me Now?

Help Slate set some ground rules for cell phone etiquette.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on the ubiquity of cell phones. 

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Another scenario: You're at a birthday dinner with a dozen people you don't know very well and don't really care to impress—do you make pointless small talk with the unemployed stock trader sitting beside you, or do you read your Twitter feed?

My own answers to these questions are all over the place. I think it's generally not cool to text when you're at the dinner table with your spouse—but if you're eating while watching TV, it becomes OK. If you're at any kind of restaurant—even Denny's—I lean back to no. Unless, that is, you're with a large group; then it's fine. For me, texting at the movies is OK when the lights are on, but once the film starts it's off limits.

As I see it, the key consideration is the phone's potential for distraction: Is it taking you away from the people around you? If so, put it away. I find it very difficult to concentrate on pretty much anything else while I'm engaged with my digital device. That's why I won't text at the dinner table but I will on the couch in front of the television: If you're already distracted by the TV, the phone isn't changing anything. That's also why larger, more impersonal groups make looking at your phone more acceptable—if there are lots of other people for your neighbor to talk to, your inattention isn't harming him very much.

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The trouble with my rule, though, is that not everyone finds phones distracting. In his chat with Sawyer, Bilton says that he and his friends are perfectly capable of texting while maintaining real-life conversations. What's more, it's obvious that for many people—especially younger people—"undivided attention" isn't a very important social commodity. Some people don't care if you're paying just partial attention to them—in a multitasked world, partial attention is good enough.

What's your take on all this? In the comments below, explain how you'd approach the situations I've described—or any other illustrative scenarios you can think of. It would be helpful if you told us something about yourself (your age and profession, for instance). Most importantly, explain how you've come by your phone etiquette policy. Is there a meaningful basis for your rule, or is it more like the prohibition against elbows on the table—you don't do it because it's just not done? Also, how important is your rule—do you consider a violation of cell-phone etiquette a terrible social breach, or do you grant some leeway to people who transgress? Is there anything else I've missed?

So go ahead, tell us what you think. One thing to note: I'm focusing on non-voice phone usage—texting, e-mailing, Web browsing, and other activities that you can do at the same time as chatting with someone else. The etiquette for talking on the phone while you're hanging out with other people is fairly well-defined: Don't do it (which is not to say that there aren't a lot of people who violate this rule). Nonetheless, if you feel you have to chime in about voice calls as well, feel free.

When everyone's had their say, we'll sift through the comments in search of consensus and report back in a future column. Stay tuned.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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