See a Magnum Photos gallery on the ubiquity of cell phones.
Imagine you've just sat down to dinner with your spouse. Let's say it's a weeknight and there's nothing particularly special about this meal—you're at your own dining room table, neither one of you has slaved in the kitchen all day, and you don't have anything especially important to discuss. Halfway through dinner, your phone buzzes with a text message. Do you reach for it? And if so, do you reply?
I'm asking because I got into an argument over this scenario on Twitter last week. The discussion was sparked by the New York Times' Nick Bilton, who, in an online chat with ABC's Diane Sawyer, argued that texting in company is becoming more and more socially acceptable. Bilton, who is 33 and is both a user interface designer and a journalist, says that he wouldn't check his phone if he were at lunch with his boss, but he has no problem doing so when he's eating with tech-savvy people his own age. Bilton even texts while at dinner with his wife—sometimes so intensely that she has to (jokingly, I assume) text him to get his attention.
I was surprised. My wife and I are around Bilton's age, and I'm thoroughly addicted to e-mail, IM, and everything else on my phone. But in my house, texting at dinner would be considered a grave slight. Indeed, reaching for the phone while my wife and I are chatting is a no-no. And it's not just a special concession we make for each other—I don't like to send text messages when I'm having a face-to-face conversation with anyone.
When I made this point on Twitter—that people should never look at their phones at dinner and that they should at least ask permission if it's an "emergency"—several techies thought I was nuts. Some had good excuses: Brian Lam edits Gizmodo, the fast-paced gadget blog, and he's always on alert for breaking news. "If I couldn't check e-mail at dinner, I often wouldn't be dining out at all," Lam tweeted. Others told me I was sticking to an outmoded social convention. It used to be considered gauche to watch TV during dinner, but now it's pretty standard—shouldn't we be as permissive with phones? In an e-mail, Bilton suggested that looking at your phone while you're hanging out with other people can actually foster good conversation—you could share photos with your pals or show off a funny video you saw online. In that case, the Internet becomes a sort of active participant in the conversation, not a distraction.
I do agree with Bilton, Lam, and others that phone etiquette depends on the social setting. But that's exactly what makes this issue so fraught: There's no consensus on exactly what's appropriate and when.
That's where you come in, dear readers. Perhaps the best way to solve the problem of the Internet's intrusion into our daily lives is to use the Internet's power of collaborative thinking. Let's work together to come up with a concise, easy-to-understand, and logical rule that anyone could apply in any social situation to determine when to reach for the phone and when to keep it hidden in the deepest recesses of one's pocket or purse.
Now, this won't be easy. Any potential rule must cover a wide variety of situations. Let's tweak my above scenario: What if, instead of sitting down at the dinner table, you and your partner plopped down on the couch to eat cold pizza while watching a rerun of Law & Order? Would it be OK to check your e-mail then? If you say yes now and said no before, why—what changed your mind?
The rules change again when you leave the house. Now you and your significant other are at a neighborhood diner. Can you check your phone here? How about if you're at McDonald's? What about a white-tablecloth joint? Or say you're taking a long walk in the park together on a sunny day. What's acceptable in that setting?
Now let's replace your spouse with other people. You're at the movies on a second date, and as you wait for the theater to go dark you get a text from a friend asking how the date is going. Do you reply? How about if the text comes during the movie?
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.
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.