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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 15, 2013 at 6:58 PM

No smartphones on the table? Test your tech etiquette


Do you practice good phone manners? (Image:

Nobody likes the word “etiquette.”

It feels inflexible and draining, like a teacher whose only joy is pointing out mistakes. This is a time for breaking rules, not making them. Viral videos, Facebook revolutions, CEOs in hoodies. Anything goes.

Etiquette? We don’t need etiquette.

Except we really, really do.

Etiquette is about interacting with people. And with the rise of always-with-us devices and always-connected media we’re interacting with more people more often than ever. We had centuries to figure out if elbows go on the table. Do smartphones go there, too?

Welcome to the evolving, tough-love world of tech etiquette.

“Tech is miraculous. It’s wonderful. But we shouldn’t be using it to make excuses for ourselves,” said Mary Mitchell, Seattle-based consultant and author of the new book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Modern Manners.”

What guidelines have enough consensus to last? With the help of Mitchell and the many of you who shared your thoughts last week, I submit the following:

If you have to take a call in a closed public space, keep it short and quiet. Studies have shown that overhearing “halfalogues,” one-half of conversations conducted over the phone, distracts your brain, which can’t help but try to fill in the blanks. It’s worse in public spaces where people don’t always flow in and out, like a bus or a coffee shop. You may think you’re being quiet, but watch out. Your cues on volume are coming from the person on the other line, not your physical surroundings.

Checking your phone is great while you wait. But when it’s your turn, be ready. You’ve been there. The person in front of you is glued to her phone, and when it’s her turn to order, she takes her first look at the menu and stammers out another text. Smartphones make us patient waiters, but nothing drains that patience faster than someone who makes us wait longer.

When you’re with friends or family, actually be with them. This is a big one — maybe the biggest — and easily the most controversial. I agree with Mitchell on one point: Answering your phone or sending a text in the middle of a conversation without excusing yourself is “tantamount to standing up and walking out of the room.” But what if you glance at your phone when it buzzes? Is a quick, unexplained email check really so bad? I get my cues from the situation. If we’re hanging out casually at someone’s house, dipping into our own worlds is no big deal. If we’re in the middle of dinner or some focused activity, it gets in the way, at best, and tells your friends they’re boring you, at worst.

A recent set of studies found that just the presence of a cellphone can impact the depth and quality of a conversation.

Consider it the Golden Rule of Facebook: Don’t post photos of friends you wouldn’t want posted of yourself, to use reader Karen Gaudette’s thoughtful phrasing. Every time someone tags me in a photo where I look really terrible, he humiliates me. No one puts bad photos of his or herself in photo albums. Why do it with shared photos of friends?

Let people control their own stories. A former colleague couldn’t believe it when her friend posted news of her baby’s birth before she did. Neither could I. “She scooped me on my own life news,” she told me. And another thing: Some of us share a lot and some of us share a little. Before you include people in your posts, have a sense of whether they’re OK with it. Be extra careful around kids. For parents who manage family privacy closely, posting public pictures of their kids can be a bad move.

Honor heavy conversations by having them on the appropriate channels. “Breaking up with someone via call is sad, email is rude, and text is downright unforgivable,” wrote reader Sara Kiesler. The effort you put into a conversation is directly proportional to the significance you place on it. If you can have a Big Talk while you check Facebook or hang out with a friend, you’re already telling the other person you don’t care. It’s not going to go well.

Proofread. “Sent from my phone” can explain brevity, as I’ve written here before, but it is no excuse for misspellings and bad grammar. It’s not that language is sacred so much as the sloppiness cheapens your message. Abbreviations? They seem to be more a matter of taste. Everyone loves efficiency.

Don’t ask people to find information you can easily find yourself. Mitchell had a gentler way of phrasing this: “Let’s remember so much information is available online that it eliminates the need to ask for directions, operating hours and other things.” The growing pet peeve behind this is memorialized at (“let me Google that for you”). Check it out if you haven’t already.

What do you do when you run in to someone who’s showing disrespect with bad tech behavior? I cower and grumble. Mitchell has a better approach: You tell them.

How? Respectfully. Mitchell has a trick. Say to yourself, “it’s raining outside.” Then use that same objective tone to ask your tech irritant to change it up. Chances are, she had no idea. She might even thank you.

Heck. We all will.

Update: Corrected a link in the article. It’s, not Thanks, stkelly52

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet?
Send her an email at, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Habits, Mobile, Reactions & Resources, Social, Tech Oops


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