Mobile Device Etiquette


SummaryPay less attention to your device and more to those around you.
Revised2023-02-04 @ 18:00 UTC

A friend and colleague of mine, Jason Vanderslice, and I recently discussed the state of mobile devices with regard to their place in various settings and within our interpersonal relationships. While I would not presume to speak for Jason on most subjects, we agree that mobile device etiquette is something that needs to be taught, spread to others and repeated.

With the evolution of digital, mobile devices came a million new ways to distract ourselves. Every new Twitter mention, Facebook tag, Instagram #hashtag, email, text and push notification is a jarring intrusion in to whatever we are doing that yearns for our attention and ultimate dismissal. Ignoring the vanity associated with thinking that we are important enough that our responses cannot wait (I’m not talking about you, doctors; you have a free pass with your 13 pagers), there is another aspect with which so many of us are tied to our phones: we want to clear messages and push notifications out of our lives as quickly as possible in order to avoid the stress of having so many of them build up. Everyone loathes the feeling of a mountain of emails crushing down on them. Everyone feels guilty about not returning that email their boss sent them at 11pm about XYZ big important project of the quarter. But something is lost—ignored, even: the consideration of those around us. Instead of focusing on the anxiety these acts alone cause us, I would like you to consider the effects your actions have on those around you.

Being Present

I want to tell you about a man who changed my life by setting an example. Paul Singh, former partner at 500 Startups and founder of Disruption Corporation, is a very well-known investor in the tech world and single-handedly transforms cities economically. You can safely bet that his phone is constantly buzzing with the latest killer app ideas, city construction issues and other problems that require his attention.

I was fortunate enough to get to spend a day with Paul, Marty Bauer and heaps of other great folks at The Iron Yard in Greenville, SC, last year, where Paul came to speak about what he was doing in Crystal City, Arlington, VA. We picked him up at the GSP airport and, after a night’s rest, three of us met Paul at Coffee Underground for breakfast and coffee. While we sat there discussing life, the universe and everything, I was surprised how attentive and conversational Paul was. He listened to every word someone had to say, waited for them to finish, thought for a moment and then provided a relevant response and/or follow-up question.

So what’s the big deal? Most people are taught from childhood how to have a conversation. Let’s hear more.

During his presentation, an attendee was most disrespectful, hijacking the presentation to seemingly blame Paul for the Industrial Revolution and subsequent child labor issues. As one would imagine, this had nothing to do with his presentation, but instead of putting the attendee down, Paul listened and responded to the attendee with respect while he received none. When it was clear there was to be no resolution to the original question, he closed the subject elegantly and continued his talk without skipping a beat.

What do these two personal acedotes have to do with mobile device etiquette?


You see, Paul Singh, whether at the coffee shop or giving a talk or speaking with attendees afterwards, was present. He was there with each person in each moment. When I confronted him about his persona and charisma, he mentioned a book, The Charisma Myth, which I of course purchased soon thereafter. This book explained, broke down and reinforced principles of interactions with others that had been taught to me in my youth, but behind which I had never fully understood the “why”. While the book is a gold mine of information, there is a very large emphasis, with regard to exuding charisma, on presence. In short, if you are distracted and not paying attention to someone you are with, this person will consciously or unconsciously believe that they are not important enough for your attention and will thus likely stop seeking to be in your presence simply because of the way you make them feel.

Think about that.

How many times have you been distracted by something, not just devices, when you have been with someone? How many times have you not answered their questions because something your mind deemed more important grabbed your attention? You may not be able to recall these instances, for they mean nothing to you. But now that you have read this far, you will undoubtedly begin to notice others acting this way towards you. Don’t worry, for seeing negative habits in others is the first step to changing your own.

You Might Be Distracted If…

Kids These Days

Most folks these days know not what they do. The younger generation doesn’t know a life without phonepads, and the older generation didn’t know to ubiquitously enforce an etiquette around them. I believe there will eventually be a pendulum swing away from the current state of device affairs where mobile device etiquette becomes a standard, and considerations for this will continue to show up in new device features.

In the mean time, an interesting “game” has popped up among 20-somethings where everyone at dinner places their phones in the middle of the table, one on top of another. If anyone retrieves their phone during dinner, that person must then pick up the tab. Gamification… who would have thought? This is a great start.

So What Can You Do?

Step 1: Catch It

If you have to ask yourself,

"Is it appropriate to take out my phone?"

then the answer is probably no.

Step 2: Don’t Be A Jerk

When your friends are all tweeting about how much fun they’re having during your birthday party at the pub, be careful with bringing attention to the subject. Not only will they be ashamed when they realize you are right, but they will also resent you for calling them out. However, being passive aggressive and hinting at their poor manners isn’t the answer, either.

It is said that when you point at someone, you’re pointing three fingers back at yourself. Instead, focus on making yourself better rather than being quick to judge others.

Step 3: Set the Example

When you go to hang out with your little cousins or when you fly to give a talk to a group of strangers, turn your phone on silent (or Airplane Mode) and either keep it in your pocket at all times or even leave it in the car. If you have a necessary business meeting, plan it accordingly and if you must, take the call outside. Remember that every single person you come in to contact with is affected by the actions you take and the way you make them feel while they interact with you. Set the example and pass on good habits.