Grow Up, Turn Off Your Phone

| Editorial

I wrote recently that the new features in Apple’s iPhone 4 have me wondering if I should finally get a smartphone. But for me, the technical aspects of the iPhone are actually the least important part of a decision like this. The iPhone has fundamentally changed the way people communicate and interact. And the changes aren’t always positive. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would mean to bring an iPhone into the house.

Here’s the situation. I’m not an IT guy, but I am a technophile. I like cool technology, and I love well-designed products.

But in our house, all computer activity stops at 8:30PM. Without that rule, we talk less and sleep worse. What would happen if we brought smartphones into the house? I’m not sure, but I feel my blood pressure rise when I read about people (including many TMO writers and readers) using them to check news headlines in bed or fact-check conversations on the fly. This behavior wasn’t the original reason I stayed away from smartphones, but it’s proven to be the most durable.

The thing is, as phones get more compelling, it gets harder to stay away. Peer pressure is one reason for some (take TMO reader Geoduck’s comment as an example); two others are money and convenience. For many of us, it’s now cheaper and easier to own one smartphone than to lug around a phone, camera, camcorder, and GPS.

These mobile devices will only become more a part of our lives. So it’s time for some discussion about their appropriate role. People write about gadget etiquette all the time, including here at TMO. But I feel we’re at a transition point with iPhone 4. The sheen has worn off. These devices are part of modern life. The iPhone and it’s competitors (what David Pogue calls “app phones”) are all grown up. It’s time for us to grow up, too. Let’s talk about what it means to be an adult with a smartphone.

Basic Principle #1: The Message You Send Sends a Message
Apple stresses that the iPhone connects people with one another. That’s true, if the people aren’t already physically proximate. But what about the people standing next to you? You’re ignoring the world around you with every email you read, every text you send, and every check of facebook or twitter or — indeed — The Mac Observer. Let me repeat that: if you’re communicating with someone who isn’t present, then you’re not communicating with the people who are present.

The result is that the mere sight of a mobile device sends a message to the people around you. If you who wear your phone on a hip holster or always wear a bluetooth earpiece, you tell everyone around you that you are fully prepared to stop paying attention to them at any time.

And when that text, email, or call does arrive, or when you glance down to check on that push notification, everyone around you gets the message that they’re less important to you than the people at the other end of your phone.

This leads me to Rule #1. Mobile devices should remain invisible. Not necessarily hidden (although that’s fine), but invisible. If you’re using your phone in such a way that others notice it, then you’re being rude.

How do you follow Rule #1?

  • Minimize the visibility of your phone and peripherals. Turn off audible alerts.
  • Never use your phone during a meeting or conversation. You’re not being sneaky, you’re being an ass. If you run a meeting, institute a no-phones policy.
  • If you do need to check your phone, excuse yourself from the meeting or conversation first. (You don’t need to say anything, just move away.)
  • Don’t fact-check the conversation unless someone else specifically requests it. If you’re really itching to look something up, ask first: “Should I Google it?” If no one answers, the answer is no.
  • If you want to use your phone for something social (to show pictures, to share music, to take a picture or video), ask first: “Our new dog is really cute. Want to see her?” (Again, if no one answers, the answer is no!)
  • Being on your own — walking down the street, say — does not exempt you from this Rule. If you’re playing with a phone, anything that goes wrong (bumping into people, getting hit by a car, falling down a manhole) is your fault.

Basic Principle #2: Focus is Binary
There are plenty of words being written about how always-on, multi-tasking behavior damages critical thinking. More importantly, the concept multi-tasking is basically a lie. Working on multiple tasks degrades our ability to do any of them well. There’s cognitive psychology research being done to quantify the effect.

But come on, we don’t need doctors to tell us that we can only do one thing at a time. Have you ever had a stimulating conversation with one person while you write a brilliant letter to someone else? Of course not.

The result is that constantly running to your phone doesn’t just make you emotionally distant, it also makes you dull and unpleasant. For example: Joe is with his friends Adam and Sarah when he receives a text from Jane, who has suggested a time and place to meet later that afternoon. He looks up from his phone and says, “That was Jane. I’ll have to leave after lunch.” Maybe Adam was hoping to get a ride from Joe after lunch, so this information is relevant to him. But Adam was in the middle of talking to Sarah about something completely different, so Joe’s comment is annoying and distracting. It comes across more as if Joe is forcing Adam to make a decision immediately, on Joe’s schedule, about whether he wants a ride.

Hence we require Rule #2. Do one thing at a time. There’s a small door between the analog world around you and the digital world in your phone. Respect that door, and don’t try to be on both sides of it at once. You’ll be more likely to say something interesting in an analog conversation, and you’ll be more likely to get something from your digital excursion.

Rule #2 is somewhat Zen. Some tips for putting it in practice:

  • Follow Rule #1. In addition to making you more pleasant to be around, it raises the barrier to stepping between the digital and analog worlds.
  • Put the analog world first. You are at your most effective in the analog world, because all your senses and faculties are fully at your disposal. If you’re going to do or say something worthwhile, you have your best chance of it happening with the people right in front of you.
  • If you’re bored, don’t start fiddling with your phone. Instead, look for one thing to think about in depth. You won’t be bored for long, and you also won’t be so boring.
  • When you return from the digital world, return quietly. Pause to dump your brain’s working memory. Even if you learned or did something interesting on your digital adventure, no one else went with you. You walked out on the conversation. You are now obliged to re-integrate yourself into the conversation as much as if you had walked out of the room.

Basic Principle #3: Behavior and Expectations are in Positive Feedback
People express disbelief when I say we shut down our computers at 8:30PM. How would anyone get ahold of us if there’s a problem? How do we get all of our work done? The disbelief comes from an expectation of how and when people are available. Expectations about availability — on phone, email, social networks, or Twitter — are understood to drive our behavior.

But behavior also drives expectations. How do we keep our rule? We simply plan to be done by 8:30PM with anything that requires a computer. Very occasionally we’re overloaded and fail to meet the deadline, so our sleeping habits suffer accordingly. But it’s rarely a problem. Much more common is that one of us “has to do one quick thing” — send an email, check a website — for something that no one will use before the following morning.

This behavior is fascinating to me. Why do we feel like there might be “something important” that we don’t want to miss? When you stop and think about it, even the important things usually don’t have an immediate deadline. You can answer an important email tomorrow morning. In fact, you might be able to answer more constructively if you’ve had a night’s sleep. Or if you wait to deal with it over a phone call or in person.

Hence, Rule #3. Reserve urgency. Most of what we do is not that important. Behave accordingly. If you’re not always in panic mode, people will take you seriously if pull out your phone to get something done. (Remember Rule #1, and excuse yourself first.)

I’ve found I don’t need a bullet list to follow Rule #3. I just need to lower my opinion of myself. In fact, we’d probably all benefit from occasionally reminding ourselves: “The world will go on without me.” Believe that, and you’ll feel a lot less pressure to check in on FourSquare. Or update your FaceBook status. Or respond to comments on your blog.

Feel the weight lifting from your shoulders? Great. Now put down your phone, turn to the person next to you, and try out a conversation that’s carried on by something other than your thumbs. You’ll thank me when your companion notices she has your undivided attention, and smiles.

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Could not agree more. I’m 41 and work with and supervise a lot of people in their mid-20’s, and I really hate the fact that they feel compelled to always check their phones the instant they receive a text, even during a formal work meeting for which their incoming text has no context. We really need to bring back some decorum and respect to the people we are conversing with in the same room.

I have also found that the people who do the most text checking described above are hands-down the least productive and easily distracted to the point that I have to tell them to shut down their email/chat apps and focus on only the task at hand.

Dean Lewis


Of course, there is the interesting factor of people around 20 years old. A whole generation and any forthcoming have not lived in a world without this kind of access. It is second nature to them, and trying to stop them from doing some of the things you mention is like pulling teeth. At the store I work at we get several complaints of our employees checking their phones, texting, etc. instead of moving to help a customer. And it isn’t just the employees—I’m thoroughly annoyed when I’m helping a customer and they answer the phone or check it in the middle of me showing them what they asked about or they gab on the phone and ignore me while I’m ringing up their stuff at the register.

While I don’t go so far as you in tech use after a certain time at night (I’m single; if I had a family, we’d likely have such a rule), I do tend to not carry my phone a lot. I have voicemail and will return calls. The most important people have my work number to reach me there. The world doesn’t end if I don’t answer the phone every time it rings.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Very good points. I went out to dinner last night and discovered the only thing more annoying than people taking phone calls at dinner (which I’m occasionally guilty of but try to be discrete and quick). The family behind us was having a discussion about correct phone at the table etiquette! And it went on for 10 minutes…

Since I switched from iPhone to Nexus One, the one feature which has made it much easier to adhere to good phone at the table etiquette is transcribed voicemail. It makes voicemail useful. I don’t feel bad about important people going to voicemail. And they no longer feel bad about leaving a message. The transcribed message hits my email and the Google Voice app within 10 minutes usually.

Nemo has tried and tried to explain it to me, but I still have no idea why Apple would disallow a Google Voice app on the iPhone. It’s way too useful.


I hope some people listen to this advice. Nothing grinds my gears more than having a meeting at work, where several people are tapping away on their Blackberrys or immediately answer a call; we have v-mail for a reason!

Also, at the University where I work it’s depressing to watch students wandering around with their head down texting or clutching their phone in a death grip like a weird security blanket. As they all exit a lecture hall the first action is, almost as one, the hand and phone go right to their ear. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are talking to each other leaving the same room.

i hope I can manage to not allow my son to be turned into one of these always-on, hyper-connected, zombies, who can’t focus on the simplest of tasks.


Also, at the University where I work it?s depressing to watch students wandering around with their head down texting or clutching their phone in a death grip like a weird security blanket

You mean like this?


@geoduck: HA! Excellent!


There is another side to this though.
If someone you are having a conversation with keeps checking their phone, it just means, I hate to say, that you’re just not interesting enough wink

But seriously, depending on where you work, not having a mobile communications device present means you don’t care about your job.
I was working as an TV editor for a News team covering the UK election, and everyone was constantly on these devices, during meeting people were always getting messages and stuff, checking up on contacts and stuff - Some people just live in the fast lane I suppose


I feel like I just got yelled at by an old codger neighbor. “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!!”

I think this a prime example of a generation gap. Do I agree with some of what you said, yes. Do I think we need to reinforce some kind of basic communication manners/protocol for the younger generations? Yes.

At the same time, I do not think getting yelled at by an old white guy will help.

Dean Lewis

It’s mainly just basic manners, jennielf. And it’s more than just younger generations. There are many many ways to be rude. The always-connected device is just the latest.

Also, using something like this actually for the job at hand is a whole other thing entirely. Even I’ve Googled stuff at the bookstore. Being on a news team or an on-call tech service person is one thing; checking your phone to see the latest cat picture your friend sent you when you should be walking up to a customer and asking how their day is going and if you can assist them is another.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@jennielf: When some old fart tells you to get off your phone and pay attention, just remind them that the text or phone call really is more important to you than what they have to say. The etiquette police don’t have any special moral authority. They do, however, have an obligation to remain compelling if they want to compete with other distractions.

Lee Dronick

If someone you are having a conversation with keeps checking their phone, it just means, I hate to say, that you?re just not interesting enough

Or maybe your like the crazy cat lady on the Simpsons. My iPod and iPhone can be a refuge when I am out in the madding crowd.


I do not think getting yelled at by an old white guy will help.

Codgers are only white?

Perhaps the lesson in ignorance towards people around you goes beyond learning when and how to use your cell phone.


@Bosco I agree with what you say. But it may also be what @Sir Harry said, it’s not that you are not important, but I may have anxiety issues, waiting on an email text about family in the hospital, etc.

@Everyone else Again, I do agree that there are many abuses and rudeness from many people, and yes, the obliviousness has gotten out of hand. However, that doesn’t change my opinion that the tone of this article is a smidge condescending. YMMV.


My sister values human interaction and others feelings above all.  I value knowledge and performance above all.  The author seems to value adherence to his defined view of “courtesy” above all.  All of these are valid imho.  Enforcing them or having expectations that others should feel the same is where I get off the bus.


I dunno, I tend to take the Rule #3 approach.  Believe it or not, the conversation I am having in situ with you may not be the most important conversation in your day.  I don’t take it personally when someone’s phone beeps and they pull it out and check who that text, tweet, or call is from and respond appropriately.

Look at it from the opposite point-of-view:  You’re standing around chatting about your weekend and a text comes in from their boss.  Should they ignore it and pay attention to your story about your day at the beach just because you happen to standing in the same room?

I do agree, though, that it’s polite to excuse yourself.  If my phone beeps, I look to see what it’s about.  If it’s less important than you, I’ll turn off the ringer and go back to my conversation with you.  If it’s more important than you, I’ll excuse myself and tell you that I’ll catch up with you later.

But don’t feel bad when something comes up that I consider more important than hearing about your day at the beach.


Come to think of it, if you could install a mute button on people who only speak in meeting to hear the sound of their own voice I might be in favor of that. wink


I’m on the fence in some respects.  I agree with majority of the message and comments.  I’m just not thrilled about the tone.  I agree with @jennielf that it feels like I was just yelled at by some old man talking about “those damn kids again”.  Which feels funny since I’m not in my 20s.. I’m pushing closer to 40s then 20s. =)

Mind you I have my own rules when it comes to computers and cell phones that I follow.  They are simple and clear cut:

1. No computers in the bedroom (this also goes for TVs as well).
2. Cell phones should be seen but not heard (I don’t care if people use them.  If they want to use them instead of interact with me then I go somewhere else, but I frankly hate hearing all the trite rings.  Mine phone is set to vibrate about 80% of the time).
3. If you are calling me after 9pm (cell or landline)... You better be dying (this came as a family policy, no calls over supper, no calls after 9pm.  A policy I follow to this day.  I could careless about SMS, email, IM, etc.  They are handled based on my priority stack and if I wish can be completely ignored.  A ringing phone annoys the living.. *BLEEP* out of me when I’m trying to focus).

Sandro Cuccia

There’s this big trend now-a-days for so-called bloggers and “journalists” to tell us how to work our tech. Sorry, but I don’t need the lecture. I use common sense, and that includes ignoring incoming calls. If the person I am talking to takes a call or texts, I just leave.


I see that being rude to others on the internet is still deemed acceptable, particularly when it’s to enlighten others to their apparent rudeness. How ironic.


There are vast opportunities to annoy others with cell phones or text messages. People don’t go to a restaurant or theater to hear our phone conversations. And many establishments ask us to turn off our mobile devices on their premises. That so many have to ask for this should tell how often people are annoying others (who complain) this way. I applaud Spero’s urging us to be more present, responsive and civilized, regardless of age.

For years I’ve wanted a small, pocketable device to jam cell phone conversations of those being rude or not present (like when driving). And I thought I would soon be wealthy if I could make & sell such jammers. But then I think, “Which would be ruder? The obnoxious cell phone user or the jammer?” 

Just thinking about Spero’s points will go along way toward resolving such issues around technology use.


I think it is interesting how focused comments are on age.  I’m in my 20’s and I wish people would think about smartphone use more in terms of common courtesy.  Another thing to be added to the list: The last two times I went to a movie theatre, the person in the row in front of me pulled out a smartphone and started using it in the middle of the movie.  In a dark theatre, my eyes go right to the lit up screen.  It’s completely distracting.

Lee Dronick

People don?t go to a restaurant or theater to hear our phone conversations. And many establishments ask us to turn off our mobile devices on their premises. That so many have to ask for this should tell how often people are annoying others (who complain) this way

We don’t go to restaurants, or cinema, to hear conversations that are not being conducted via cell phone. It isn’t the cell phone that is the problem, is it is the inconsiderate person who does not possess an indoor voice.


As a person who is on-call 24/7 I’m afraid that my cell phone messages are more important than you. When my rudeness costs you $150 million, I’ll reconsider my position.

I’m sorry, but sometimes being able to respond to an email, pull up driving directions and have a conversation with you all at the same time is something I just need to do. If you can’t bear to not be the center of attention please leave.

I’m expected to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I may not need to put out fires every second of that time, but the entire reason why my job exsists is to be there when it counts. It may be inconvient for you to see me respond to an emergency call, but I assure you, the $30 million dollars I’m about to save your bank is well worth your annoyance over me being “rude”.



All fine and good but for the VAST majority of people with smart phones that is not the case. They’re just rude.

FWIW I’m an IT guy that’s on call 24/7. But if I miss a call, well that’s why we have a team. Nobody is available 24/7. You have to sleep sometime. You’re in the shower some time. There is always going to be a time when they can’t get you. If I may ask what do you do that makes you so indispensable?


FWIW I?m an IT guy that?s on call 24/7. But if I miss a call, well that?s why we have a team. Nobody is available 24/7.

Yeah, but I’m pretty sure that if you make it a habit of not being available when calls come in you won’t have your job for long.

You have to sleep sometime.

True, but that’s what an audible ring tone is for. To wake you. I can’t count how many times I’ve been woken from sleep to take a service call.

You?re in the shower some time.

I can hear my phone perfectly fine while I’m in the shower. But then I keep it on a stand next to the shower. It’s really not that hard to turn off the water to take a call. I’ve only had to interupt my fifteen minute showers five or six times to my memory.

There is always going to be a time when they can?t get you.

Yes, but if you make it a habit you tend to not keep the job.

If I may ask what do you do that makes you so indispensable?

I provide mission critical on-site support for banks and financial institutions. I’ve been flown out to ten different states on both coasts, north central and south central over the last five years providing that support.

And yes, there are lots of other people that could do all of that, quite of few of them I work with on a daily basis. But my job is to be one of them, not to shirk my responsibility.


Yeah, but I?m pretty sure that if you make it a habit of not being available when calls come in you won?t have your job for long.

My apologies. I guess I came across as being critical, which I didn’t mean to be.

The major point I wanted to make though is that almost nobody with a cell phone is in that situation. The percentage of cell phone users that have your sort of a job and really actually have to be in touch all the time regardless is vanishingly small. Top end IT, Obstetricians, and a few other fields. Most are just regular people that want to play with the gadget.

I also suspect that most cell phone users are aware of how they appear and are careful not to annoy. As with most things there is always a small percentage of jerks. Some of them just don’t realize how annoying they are. I suspect that there may even be a bit of “I’m so important that I have to take this call” snobbery going on even when it’s a high school kid getting a call from his friend.

Laurie Fleming

Daemon, you’re a barrel of laughs, I’m sure.

Jennielf - Get off my lawn. You can’t hear me? Take those headphones out of your ears!

Signed, Angry, of Tunbridge Wells


I feel like I just got yelled at by an old codger neighbor. ?Hey you kids, get off my lawn!!?

I think this a prime example of a generation gap. Do I agree with some of what you said, yes. Do I think we need to reinforce some kind of basic communication manners/protocol for the younger generations? Yes.

At the same time, I do not think getting yelled at by an old white guy will help.

I don’t recall anywhere in the article where the author specifically mentioned the younger generation. Maybe you were multitasking whilst reading the article. smile

FWIW - I thought there age-targeting in the article but I re-read it and proved myself wrong. Mr. Spero was correctly delineating the errors many of us make, young or old.


Well, I guess daemon set us straight. He’s one important guy. What’s more important than money, right?
I mean, he could have been a doctor on call or something, but I guess then his clients would most likely be worth less than 150M. In fact, a doctor might get a call to respond to someone that doesn’t have any money at all. So a doctor might just as well let that call go to voicemail. Though it is a gamble… it could be Steve Jobs’ emergency. Then a doctor would be important.
Answer your phone at all costs, daemon. I sure wouldn’t want to keep you from saving the world with your importance.


But what are we supposed to do when the people in front of us are dull and uninteresting? I get sucked into a lot of meetings that really where people think that they are in a discussion, but all that they are doing is regurgitating conversations that might be better dealt with individually - but for some reason, they feel that they need to do so in front of a roomful of people.

Remember the days when people would set off their beepers, just so that they could escape interminable and inane conversations?

Perhaps the real question is ... if you can’t keep the attention of a person who is directly in front of you, perhaps he or she has a good reason to be looking for a way to escape something that you may think incredibly interesting, that they could care less about. Sure, it may be rude to not be interested in their conversation, but it is just as rude to corner someone and force them to listen to what YOU think is important.

Laurie Fleming

I’ve just been off to lunch at the fabulous Balti House with a friend from out of town. Three times did my phone beep to announce that an email had arrived, to tell me that there had been a reply to this thread. And Three times did I ignore it.

Unlike Daemon, I am of little or no importance, and the messages were less so. So Franco and I had an enjoyable lunch, free from the travails of connectedness, and we solved the political and financial problems of the world. No suggestions for the oil spill though. But we’re working on it.


if you can?t keep the attention of a person who is directly in front of you, perhaps he or she has a good reason to be looking for a way to escape something that you may think incredibly interesting,

Here’s a bit of advice for all of us. Maybe we all should bookmark this on our iPhone and show it to ‘that guy at the party’.


There’s another side to this that I deal with all the time: the increasing expectation that a person is always available on the other end. In other words, the risk of offending someone when you don’t respond immediately to their calls and texts. It seems I’m constantly telling friends and colleagues that I’m not a slave to my phone; I don’t always carry it, often have it off, and sometimes simply choose to ignore it.

Many express frustration, or even assume I’m angry or avoiding them when I don’t respond immediately (if at all). I spend a great deal of time and energy reminding others that it’s nothing personal - I just don’t like being in constant contact.

My family understands, but even close friends often don’t.

And my clients also understand, thank goodness… it seems there still remains a sense of limited availability in the business world.

For daemon, I can only say that your employer is unwise… they need to hire more people. If you’re the only person that can handle what you handle, then they need to train others. Being dependent on a single source for service is not a wise policy, and eventually you will tire of the routine and seek other work.

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