Cellphone Etiquette 101

Cell Phone Etiquette for the Modern Gentleman

Phones. Everyone has one, and there seems to be no limit to what people are willing to do with their phones in public. Unfortunately, it appears that with the ability to regularly network with the world, we’ve forgotten to engage with those closest to us. Today we will cover

the tricky ground of cell phone etiquette, from the frame of reference of what we all aspire to be: a gentleman.

Put your phone away on the airplane or use it silently

Put your phone away on the airplane or use it silently

What Etiquette?

A hundred years ago, it would have been considered a shocking breach of etiquette to wear a watch of any kind to a dinner party; it would have implied that you had better things to do than focus on your host. Back then, strict rules of dress and etiquette governed almost every conceivable social situation in polite society. Lest you risked meeting with public scorn or not-so-public gossip, you followed the tradition without question. These days we may appreciate the softening (and in some ways, disappearing) rules of etiquette, but the rise of technology has us in an awkward position. Suddenly, there aren’t any rules, nor are there any old rules to fall back on in questionable situations. With phones, it sometimes appears that only one rule applies: push the boundaries of ‘polite’ behavior until someone pushes back.

Today, we will do just that. It is safe to say that everyone has their pet peeves regarding cell phones, and a recent poll states that 92% of people want others to have better etiquette and that manners are worsening over time. A shocking 48% of people polled even used their phones in the bathroom! A quick poll of friends revealed an outpouring of perceived issues: obviously private conversations being held in public, excessive talking or ringing volume, abuse of speakerphone, interruptions of in-person activities of all kinds, distractions from multi-tasking, or obsessive fiddling with texting or the internet…the list goes on.

The Problem

While some of these actions are simply annoying, others leave people feeling ignored, unimportant, or disregarded for something “better.” Case in point: meeting a person for dinner or coffee, in which your companion finds it necessary to keep their phone on the table. 

Far worse, our collective fixation with our cell phones has created a very real and dangerous problem on the roads: use of a phone by a driver in a moving vehicle quadruples the risk of a collision. Now, like many modern inventions, the technology itself is not to blame – it’s how we use it. Our relationships with technology are rapidly changing, which leaves the absence of an etiquette standard even more evident.

Who is more important your spouse or your phone

Who is more important your spouse or your phone

So Where Do We Begin?

Aside from establishing mandatory etiquette classes at the point of purchase, the best place to exact change is with one’s own behavior – in following with the classic saying treat others as you would like to be treated. That being said, many attitudes about cell phones and what is or is not appropriate are generational. Millenials may not be offended by phone use at the dinner table if all their friends are doing it, but older generations will likely not feel the same way. 

Cell Phone Etiquette Guidelines

  • Employ the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Expect that less self-aware companions may not reciprocate.
  • Treat in-person interactions as sacrosanct. 
  • Is something worth leaving the room for? You probably wouldn’t excuse yourself from a room just to peruse news updates, so save anything not requiring an immediate response for later.
  • That being said, excuse yourself when needed. If you get an urgent work call at dinner with friends, take it in another room or outside the restaurant to avoid holding up everyone else’s conversation.
  • In the office, mirror the behavior of an esteemed colleague if no cell phone policy has been created. However, keep your ringer off and your phone in your pocket during conversations and meetings.
  • Avoid talking on your phone in close quarters with strangers – elevators, planes, bathrooms, trains, etc., where other people will be forced to hear your every word.

At Home

You may or may not need cell phone rules in your home – it’s your personal space, after all. If you live with others, cell phones can often be the sneaky thing that gets between people, both physically and emotionally. “Being present” is a phrase that’s starting to pop up more and more these days, because cell phones make it too easy to escape, on the spot. Your family, partner, or roommate shares your space and your life, so it is especially important that in-person conversations are sacrosanct no matter the setting. Put away phones at mealtimes, bedtimes, and in intimate settings.


Of course, there are moments when it is appropriate to break these rules. Capturing a picture of your children or spouse is a memory that’s worth pulling your smartphone out for.

Getting a photo of our first date

Getting a photo of our first date

Guests at Home

When you have a guest at home, it may still be your space but the rules of polite public interaction now apply. Your focus should be entirely on them, which means it is time to put your phone away. The same goes for the TV – turn it off!

Social Visits

When paying a social visit to someone in their home, regardless of whether you are the only guest or it’s a party, your cell phone should remain stashed away. Even if other people at the party are using their phones, you’ll stand out from the crowd for being polite and focusing your attention on the host and their other guests. For many parents, the concern is ‘what if the babysitter needs to reach me’? Most current smartphones offer the ability to program emergency numbers that will override do-not-disturb settings on the phone. Therefore, you can set your phone to Do Not Disturb, and the only interruption will be the emergency number you have programmed in.

In the event you wish to take a picture, make sure to ask the host first – it is their home, after all. Also, don’t forget to ask the people in the picture how you can use their image.

At Work

Many jobs require their employees to utilize a cell phone at work. Whether it be a personal phone or one provided by your employer, those who do require a cell at work should adhere to whatever code of conduct the employer has provided. If one is not available, then watch a well-respected or senior colleague and imitate how they use their phone.

Personal communication is best attended to only during breaks or your lunch hour, but if it’s not an issue at your workplace, one should excuse themselves from the work environment if making or receiving a personal call. Choose a room with a door you can close, and avoid making calls outside of the workspaces of others.

Dining Out

Silencing your phone in a restaurant is pretty standard. It’s not about the restaurant, but about respect for the other guests and the staff. Fortunately, most people seem to understand that it’s inappropriate to talk on the phone in a dining room, but somehow texting, browsing, and social networks aren’t always treated in the same way. We’ve all heard people bark at the server “what’s the wifi password” before they’ve even said hello. Going to a restaurant is an experience and expense, and once again your in-person conversations should take precedence. Keep all other phone activities to a reasonable minimum, but it is best that what you do has some relevance to the evening – taking a quick picture or looking up a conversation point, for example.

Bored couple having dinner in restaurant

Bored couple having dinner in restaurant


Formal Affairs

If a watch was once inappropriate to wear at a formal affair, just imagine what a cell phone is like. Leave it in the car or turn it off completely, and enjoy your evening.

What are you missing around you when focused on your phone

What are you missing when focused on your phone?

While Driving

Regardless of where you live and the rules that govern phones, talking while driving constitutes distracted driving. There simply is no justification for taking the risks of driving while distracted, which includes texting. If you must communicate urgently, then pull over, conduct your call, and be on your way.

While Driving with Others

It is uncomfortable than be party to a conversation that you’re not a part of. Just think about how you would feel if you had to sit awkwardly beside someone while they talked to another person and ignored you. If you must answer a call for urgent reasons, be quick and reserve sensitive conversations for another time.

man knocks off another guy while talking over the phone

Cell phone interruptions – people before phones, we say

During Conversations

We’ve all been there. You’re walking down the hallway at work, through the frozen foods section at the grocery store or even just out for a walk with your dog when you run into somebody you know. The conversation is quick and to the point. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, it’s a ’stop and chat’. Then, your phone rings. Is it okay to answer?

The answer is no. Call the person back or wait the two minutes before checking your text or email. Right now, you’re in a conversation, and that conversation should be the priority. If you are expecting an important call, then politely excuse yourself by explaining that you need to take the call. While you may miss it, you can call them back in twenty seconds as opposed to a few minutes later.

Woman sitting in a restaurant and looking at wristwatch

She’s waiting for you to get off your phone

Emergency Situations

The fact is that one of the true benefits of having a cell phone is the ability to respond to emergencies by making phone calls and receiving them. The trouble is, you won’t often know if an emergency has occurred until you hear about, so use your best judgment (answering calls from daycare or an elderly parent’s nursing home). Most people will understand if you take a call out of concern fro the health or wellbeing of someone else.

Phone Calls in Public

There are many scenarios where we find ourselves in public, and it’s seemingly appropriate to use a cell phone. Examples include grocery shopping and having to call a loved one to confirm what brand of cereal they want or whether you’re out of milk at home. However, as always, you want to keep in mind the comfort of others around you.

Girl talking on cell phone at movie theater with annoyed boy

Girl talking on cell phone at movie theater with annoyed boy


There is no excuse for using this function in public…ever. A phone is a private tool, so use your phone the standard way, or get yourself and your kids headphones for anything that makes music or noise.

There is no food in the world worth annoying other diners over

A woman having lunch at a restaurant

Taking Pictures

Many people use the camera on their cellphone as their primary camera. For a significant number of people, taking pictures is a way to store memories of the places you’ve been, people you’ve met and experiences you’ve been part of.

When you’re in the privacy of your home without guests, do what you will with your camera. Take as many photographs of your kids, spouse, yourself and your pets as you want. How and where you share them is a whole other discussion.

However, when in public here are some things to consider:

1. Before snapping a picture, decide if the situation is appropriate. A day at the beach is appropriate. A photo in the locker room is not.

2. In public spaces, don’t block or crowd areas in which many people want to take pictures. Take a picture AND a moment to enjoy the subject, and move on so someone else can see the Mona Lisa.

3. If other people are in it, seek permission first, not forgiveness after. Many people don’t like having their picture taken and even more don’t like having it shared.

4. Leave the selfie stick at home. There’s a reason so many museums, galleries, and public spaces have banned them. They’re undignified. Ideally you should just leave them on the shelf at the store.

5. If there’s a sign that says “no cell phones” do not take pictures with your smartphone. No explanation necessary.

A visitor at Detroit Institute of Arts museum uses his cell phone to take picture of 'Self Portrait' by van Gogh in Detroit

A visitor at the Detroit Institute of Arts museum uses his cell phone to take a picture of the ‘Self Portrait’ painting by painter Vincent van Gogh.


In the end, cellphone etiquette is all about the people around you. It comes down to making them feel comfortable, and everyone has a different level of comfort. Whenever you’re not entirely alone, chances are your cell phone should remain quiet and out of sight. Phones should enhance communication and social interactions, not inhibit it.

What are your biggest smartphone pet peeves?

This article was written by Currier Bell & J.A. Shapira

Article Name
Cell Phone Etiquette for the Modern Gentleman
Cell phone etiquette explained: In-depth article about navigating technology use in public - with civility
8 replies
  1. Noreh Millar says:

    A sensible and needed article.

    Another area where cell phones are a pain is when shopping. Picture this: a solitary customer walks in loudly speaking to an invisible person on a Bluetooth, quickly asks for an item, walks away and continues the conversation. Perhaps I’m not very bright, but I don’t know if I’m being spoken to or the fool on the phone. The guessing game then begins, about color, size, how many, and other questions, with the chatterbox becoming irritated when I must interrupt to find out.

    If you’ve ever taken public transportation and had to endure listening to someone argue with her boyfriend, you might have an idea what Dante was trying to convey in his story about the deepest levels of Hell.
    Again, excellent advice.

  2. Mark Hewitt says:

    Dear Raphael ,

    These infernal phones are a blight on the social landscape .
    Two reasons why ;
    Recently while visiting another city as I sat alone in a cafe’ a young couple at the next table sat and played with iphones for 30 minutes without speaking .and even while eating . As I left I asked if they were a couple . The girl said we are engaged ; I said to remain engaged you are going to have to speak to one another . The girl then said to her future husband . ” did you hear what he just said?”
    This one is a corker ‘
    At another cafe’ is a guy talking loudly on his cellphone and its all “big deal” and darling this and darling that . with the phone glued in his ear next thing it starts ringing !!! .

  3. Gonzalo says:

    That is the reason why there are no-cell-phone wagons in some Spanish trains, as there used to be non-smoking wagons.

  4. David van Schaik says:

    My dad has often called my younger sister’s latetest disease AHDS (Always Head Down Syndrome).

  5. Christopher Lee says:

    The photo of the couple at dinner speaks to cellphone abuse as a reflection of general cluelessness about socially appropriate behavior to suit the situation. The woman is dressed for dinner, while the man has casual attire with sleeves rolled up.

  6. Terry says:

    I smiled when I saw the photo underneath the “Formal Affairs” section. The text begins, “If a watch was once inappropriate….”, and the painting in the photograph is titled, I believe, “The Night Watch.”

    I appreciate your etiquette guidelines very much. Too bad they aren’t on posters everywhere for people to read when not using their mobiles.

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