Why you should put that damned phone away

In the wise words of comedian Amy Poehler as she addressed young graduating Harvard University students last May:

“The answer to a lot of your life questions is often in someone else’s face.  Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces.”

I have a cellphone. Of course I do.  But at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy  – oops, too late! – the great technological divide between how my demographic uses our mobile devices and how people of my children’s generation do has me feeling cranky these days.

As Christopher Null at Wired magazine has pointed out, theirs is the first generation to grow up with ubiquitous mobile access, and these young people are bound to carry the principles they’ve developed right into later life. Whether we old fuddy-duddies like it or not, current phone norms (like texting during dinner at Grandma’s house or obsessive ‘checking habits‘) will soon become the general norm throughout modern society as this generation ages.

Hello rudeness, goodbye manners.

Although some well-meaning types offer advice on cellphone etiquette“, this generation is not listening.

Cultural anthropologists who have studied phone usage, for example, claim that texting during a family dinner may not be only about instant gratification. According to Mimi Ito, an expert on the cell habits of Japanese teens, texting those who couldn’t be there lets everyone feel they’re part of a larger social network. Indeed, she explains that many young people draw no distinction between socializing in person or by cell, and they see no reason to favour one over the other.

But some of these young people whose smartphones seem surgically implanted into their very  beings may in fact have learned that obsession from their own parents, observes The Guardian’s Richard Adams:

“What can their parents do to help, when they themselves are glued to their iPhones or facing a ‘work-life blur’ thanks to the Blackberry, allowing the invisible hand of the office to reach into the evenings and weekends?

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a social science professor at MIT, is concerned that young people’s reliance on phones and social media may leave them unable to converse effectively, to develop empathy and – just as importantly – to handle being alone or in awkward social situations without “bailing out” via their cell phones.

Dr. Turkle explains:

“It’s their parents who are texting while driving; it’s the parents who are texting at dinner. So it’s the parents who are modelling behaviour that it’s okay to put people on pause.”

That childhood introduction to the constant intrusion of digital devices starts in infancy, with what Dr. Turkle called “breastfeeding while texting”.

She believes it’s imperative for parents to give themselves time with their children with both parties putting aside their phones – and making it clear why:

“Don’t say it when they are 13 or 14, say it when they are 8, 9 or 10. Say, it’s very important, this time I have with you. You can’t introduce that notion when they are 14.”

She adds that talking and listening to children without their phones getting in the way is important for parents:

“We’re the last generation of parents who know how precious that information is.”

This subtle message needs to be spelled out: put that damned phone away.

That’s right, turn it off and keep it out of sight. Don’t answer any phone just because it’s ringing (unless you happen to be a brain surgeon on call, and even then, set the phone on vibrate).  And if you have an alarm feature on your phone, remember that turning the phone on vibrate or off may not shut off that annoying alarm ringtone, as one very embarrassed New York concert-goer found out.*

If you have call waiting, cancel this feature. Don’t speak or text on your phone if there are any other human beings you care about trying to engage in normal conversation with you.

And do not under any circumstances rest your phone in front of you on your restaurant table as if it is a priceless artifact for all to admire.

Let’s face it, nobody is that interested.

And for the love of God, please stop that yelling whenever you are talking on your cellphone. Heed the lesson of Lakeysha Beard, a young woman travelling in May on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, a train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle.  That is, she was – until police in Salem, Oregon had to stop the train after reports that a woman had threatened other passengers when they complained she was speaking too loudly on her cellphone. Lakeysha was charged with disorderly conduct and taken into police custody after reacting in an aggressive fashion when passengers confronted her about her loud cellphone voice. She had reportedly been talking non-stop on her phone since boarding the train in California the day before.

And consider actor Kevin Spacey, who in 2007 famously yelled: “Tell them we’re busy!” after a cellphone rang while he was on stage in London.

Having internet access via your cellphone ups the ante when it comes to obsessive mobile phone usage. Just 13.2% of the world’s 6.1 billion cellphones are smartphones, according to Ericsson, the leading maker of mobile network equipment, but the rate exceeds 30% in larger markets like the United States, Germany and Britain. And in some countries like Sweden and Finland, smartphones now account for more than half of all mobile phones.

Researchers in the U.K. have reported that the top 10% of users are consuming 90% of wireless bandwidth. Of these so-called extreme users:

  • 64% are using a laptop
  • one third are using a smartphone
  • 3% have an iPad or other tablet

They also found that users of Apple’s iPhone 4S downloaded 276% more data than did people with the Apple 3G, which has been on the market since June 2008. This jump may be due to increased download volumes with Apple’s Siri voice feature or cloud computing-based applications like iTunes and other cloud services.

Meanwhile, Dr. Turkle’s research, discussed in her new book, Alone Together, offers insights that contradict the usual view of today’s young people as digital natives, able to cope seamlessly with the attention-seeking demands of modern media.

* NEWS UPDATE, January 14, 2012 –  “Ringing Cellphone Disrupts New York Philharmonic Concert”:  Maestro Alan Gilbert stopped the iconic orchestra during the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Lincoln Center this week when a loud iPhone marimba ringtone from a patron’s cellphone interrupted the performance. Gilbert turned his head to signal his displeasure when the ringtone initially went off, but the ringing continued nonstop for several minutes. Gilbert then asked that the phone be turned off, before he finally stopped the orchestra entirely. He then said to the phone’s owner, according to WQXR‘s classical music blog:

“You have a phone … Fine, we’ll wait.”

Other members of the audience then stood up and pointed in the direction of the man, shouting: Throw him out!” No ushers responded during the incident to locate the phone. The man ultimately put his hand into his pocket and silenced the device, but not before Gilbert asked:

“Is it off? It won’t come on again?”

The man nodded, and the concert resumed.

See also:


Q: Is cellphone etiquette important – or are we fighting a losing battle here?

6 thoughts on “Why you should put that damned phone away

  1. I have a theory – everyone under forty has a mutated gene that allows them to use cell phones and social media with ease, but those of us over 40 or 50 or 60 are unable to do so.

    I cannot understand why my young friends use their cell phones with ease while I absolutely don’t seem to be able to make a call without problems. I can’t use social media like they do even though I think my intelligence equals theirs. It must be a mutated gene – I can think of no other reason.

    Soon people will mutate to have a little hand sticking out of a cell phone ear. The whole cell phone thing turns my stomach and I couldn’t agree with you more. The whole cell phone new-world has taken rudeness to an entirely new level and people are not able to communicate in ways that we used to, ways that made sense, were caring, were thoughtful.

    Instead, we learn shortcuts that we don’t want or need. I could go on ad nauseum but instead will just sum it up thusly: I hate cell phones!

    • Gee, Ruth – how do you REALLY feel about cell phones? 😉 Of course, I agree with you, but I’m thinking we must seem like dinosaurs to the avalanche of (young) mobile device fans out there….

  2. In answer to your question: yes, cell phone etiquette IS important, but it’s only important to SOME of us. To those who believe the world around them (including you in mid-sentence) should just go away because their phone’s ringing, they have no clue there even IS such a thing as “etiquette”. We are indeed a dying breed, those of us who still long for consideration and good manners, don’t you think?

  3. Carolyn, you and I are fighting a losing battle. This generation thinks nothing of talking/texting even in the presence of others or at Grandma’s house during Sunday dinner, as you say. Their future children will be raised with this same lack of courtesy, and so on. They will not learn to consider such anti-social behavior as rudeness; thus it is doomed to continue forever.

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