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.
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.