Last week I asked readers to help me solve an etiquette problem. Most of us now carry cell phones that can do a lot more than make phone calls—we can send text messages, check our e-mail, surf the Web, and generally lose ourselves in the depths of a 3.5-inch screen. But look around you. Many people are pulling out their phones at inappropriate times. Spouses are texting during dinner, students are texting during class, and a lot of idiots are texting at the movies.
Enter Slate's readers. Your mission, as I outlined it, was to come up with a concise, easy-to-remember rule that we could all consult when deciding whether to reach for our phones. More than 300 thoughtful comments poured in, the overwhelming majority from people who believed that there's too much texting in public. I expected to find a clear generational divide, with younger readers expressing less angst about looking at their phones. Surprisingly, though, young people had some of the strongest feelings about texting—they were annoyed at their phone-obsessed friends and were keen to come up with some guidelines for when people should text.
So, did we manage to come up with such a rule? Yes! It's simple, too. The idea, which I'll call the Bathroom Rule, came from a reader named Marie LaFerriere, and it was seconded by many others. Here's my concise version of LaFerriere's rule:
If you're in a situation where you'd excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should also excuse yourself before reaching for your phone. Otherwise, go ahead without asking. Either way, don't play with your phone longer than you'd stay in the bathroom.
The beauty of this rule is its flexibility. If you're at dinner with your significant other or in some other small group, it enforces pretty restrictive phone use. In these settings, you should look at your device rarely, and only after notifying others that you'll be leaving the conversation. But the rule is expansive enough to cover situations in which things shouldn't be so limited. Would you say anything if you stepped away from a crowd at a cocktail party to hit the loo, or if you walked away from the couch while watching basketball with friends? If not, text away!
What I like about this rule is that it recognizes both the social costs and benefits of our digital devices. Looking at your phone, like going to the bathroom, is sometimes unavoidable: We've all got to do it sometime, and depending on life circumstances, some of us need to do it a lot more than others. But the rule also recognizes that the phone, like going to the bathroom, pulls you away from other people. If you're looking at a screen, you're not paying attention to me. The beauty of the Bathroom Rule is that it relies on a fairly well-established protocol to determine what's rude and what isn't. Every adult knows when it's necessary to excuse yourself to the restroom and when it isn't; indeed, doing is so almost automatic, you don't even really have to think about it. The rule for looking at your phone should be the same way.