You Can Text Me Now
The one simple rule you need to know to have perfect texting etiquette.
Even some of Slate's most text-hating readers said there should be exceptions for using the phone during "emergencies." If you've left your kids with the baby sitter and you feel your device vibrate in your pocket, you should be free to look at it to make sure everything is OK. The Bathroom Rule nicely accommodates such situations: There is virtually no social setting in which it would be verboten to excuse yourself to the restroom, but some situations require more tact than others—and in a very limited number of scenarios (a job interview, say) you might decide that even the worst emergencies can wait.
The trouble with condoning emergency texting is that a lot of people exaggerate their own indispensability. Some of us—your friends know who you are—like to think that our workplaces would grind to a halt if we weren't there to respond to every message. The Bathroom Rule forces these self-important over-texters to explain themselves. Whatever the social setting, you wouldn't get up to use the restroom more than a few times without offering an excuse for your apparent incontinence—and your excuse has to sound believable, lest your friends think you have a drug problem. The same goes for texting: Your friends will understand that you've got to constantly keep an eye on your e-mail as long as you offer a good explanation (you're the White House press secretary), but they'll cut you less slack if your excuse sounds fishy (you're the night manager at 7-Eleven).
Among the hundreds of comments we received, there was one area where readers were in absolute agreement: Never, ever text at the movies. Even text addicts agreed—the light from your cell phone is obnoxiously distracting to everyone else in a large, dark theater, and you deserve a pile of popcorn in your lap when you turn it on. Some even advocated extreme measures to prevent this sort of thing: "I wish U.S. movie theaters would build Faraday cages around the theaters," wrote a reader named Harley Blue Acres. "The movie theater should be the most sacred and holy space that is void of any sort of distractions. Especially at today's ticket prices." Rather than electronically jam theaters, let's decree that if you feel the urge to text at the movies, do what you'd do when you want to go to the bathroom—leave. The same holds true for the classroom, another setting that readers complained about. Several professors wrote to say that seeing students text was distracting to their lectures. "When my students text, I usually call on them, which stops the text for a moment," wrote Cynthia. "But I can't always use the occasion—and once one is texting, others are emboldened." For your teachers' sakes, kids, put your phone away. If you have to use it, excuse yourself.
One last thing about the Bathroom Rule. As I explained last week, my inquiry into phone etiquette was sparked by the New York Times' Nick Bilton, who recently argued that texting while in company is becoming more socially acceptable. When I sent Bilton the link the Slatediscussion, he e-mailed back to say that many readers were missing one important scenario: What about when everyone in a group decides that the phone is a perfectly acceptable companion to chatting? That kind of permissiveness reigns among certain social groups—D.C. politicos, Twitter-obsessed techies in Silicon Valley, just about every high-school kid at every mall in America. "If two people ... think it's perfectly acceptable to pull out our phones in front of each other, who has a right to deny that?" Bilton asked.
It's a good point—but here, again, the Bathroom Rule comes to the rescue. For certain social groups, going to the bathroom is a group activity (watch an episode of Sex and the City to see what I mean). Well, it turns out that's true of texting, too. Unless you're sure you're in one of those groups, you're better off keeping your phone tucked away—or asking if anyone would mind.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.