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Cell phones have become an unavoidable part of modern life for many people, but their presence in so many places can lead to situations in which users are inconsiderate of others. Just as general rules of etiquette vary among cultures, so do rules of cell phone etiquette. Still, some basic principles cross cultural norms — common sense and courtesy are the cornerstones of polite cell phone use. Respecting public and personal space, maintaining privacy, and not disturbing others are some general principles a person should keep in mind when using a mobile phone.
Public vs. Private Use
Cell phone etiquette is usually at its most important in public spaces, where one loud talker can disturb a large number of people. How a person uses his or her phone in more private situations matters too, however, to those who are concerned with being considerate. Many people find it rude when someone takes a cell phone call on a date or during a private social engagement with others. Along the same lines, it's usually thought to be inconsiderate to take a call in the middle of a conversation; if the caller were there in person, he or she would likely wait to politely interrupt at a more appropriate time. When in a small group or one-on-one situation, it's best for someone receiving the call to not pick up unless it's an emergency.
Focus on the Situation, Not the Call
Public settings such as restaurants, waiting rooms, and subways are usually bad places for casual cell phone conversations. Unless the user is expecting an important call, it would be best to put the ringer on vibrate or silent mode and let any calls that do not need to be answered immediately go to voice mail. This is not only more considerate to other people in the public space, but it also helps the caller maintain his or her privacy by not divulging personal information in public.
It is also generally considered poor cell phone etiquette to stay on the phone when dealing with cashiers or customer service people. If using the phone in a supermarket or other store, the person should hang up before going to the checkout lane. In a casual restaurant, it's usually considered impolite to both the counter staff and the person on the other end of the line to stop in the middle of a conversation to place an order.
Although cars are usually considered private spaces, taking a call while driving is usually not a good idea. A number of jurisdictions ban cell phone use while driving unless a hands-free system is used. Even when a driver does not have to physically hold the phone, however, studies suggest that drivers who talk while they drive tend to focus less on the road and other cars and more on the conversation. Most calls can wait, but if one can't, it is safer for drivers to pull over before answering.
Important Phone Calls that Can't Wait
If the cell phone user thinks a call might be important, he or she should try to step outside or find a secluded area to take or return a call. For urgent calls that cannot be missed, polite cell phone users should try to keep their voices low and the conversations brief. If the call interrupts a conversation, it's best for the person to apologize before stepping away to answer.
Cell phones typically have sensitive microphones that can pick up a soft voice while blocking out ambient noise, so yelling into a cell phone is usually not necessary. When people are nearby, polite cell phone users try to keep their voices low and the tone unemotional and even. Arguing or airing dirty laundry in public is almost universally considered to be poor cell phone etiquette.
Maintaining a distance of at least 10 feet (3 meters) from the nearest person when talking on a cell phone is usually a good idea. No matter how quiet the conversation, if a person is standing too close to others, it may force them to overhear what is being said. If it's necessary for a person to speak loudly to be heard by the person he or she is speaking to due to a noisy location, it's probably not a good place to be taking the call.
Places Where the Phone Should Always Be Turned Off
In almost all cases, phones should be turned off in movie theaters, playhouses, observatories, or any other public place where an audience's attention is focused on a performance or event. A ringing phone or a conversation can be very disturbing to other audience members, who have often paid money for the experience. In some cases, performances have been stopped in progress as the performers wait for an audience member to leave or silence his or her phone.
Phones should be turned off anywhere in which silence is important and disruptions should be kept to an absolute minimum. This includes courthouses, libraries, places of worship, doctor's offices, weddings, and funerals, where a ringing phone could indicate a lack of respect. It's also best to turn off a phone during a job interview, as it can suggest that the person being interviewed is more concerned with personal issues than the job.
Loud and distinctive ringtones are good for catching the phone owner's attention, but they can be a major distraction to other patrons in a restaurant or theater. If a phone must be left on in a public space, the owner should put the ringer on silent or vibrate whenever possible to create the least disturbance. Turning the volume down or even changing the ringtone to one that is more subtle — such as the sound of bells ringing rather than the latest pop song — may also cause less of an interruption.
Texting and Surfing the Web
Using a smartphone to text someone or look something up online is usually appropriate in public spaces, as long as doing so does not disturb others. Smartphones often have very bright screens, and can even be used as flashlights in some cases, so using them in a dark environment like a movie theater can be very distracting. Watching videos or playing music without headphones is also likely to be a disruption in any public space, and should be avoided. Many smartphones also include games, which should only be played in public if they do not include loud sound effects or are likely to result in the player making a lot of physical movements or vocal reactions.
Just like taking a phone call in the middle of a conversation would likely be considered impolite, focusing on the phone's screen to check sports scores or email while talking to others is usually bad cell phone etiquette. If an email or text must be responded to, the cell phone user should apologize and excuse himself to do so privately. Texting or surfing the Internet should never be done while driving.