Smartphone etiquette isn’t something we’ve really sorted out yet as a society.
Our phones have become a ubiquitous presence in every moment of our lives. We don’t have clear-cut norms surrounding when it’s inappropriate to use them.
In most situations, 3 or 4 pieces of simple advice will get you, say, 80% of the possible benefits. When it comes to not being an obnoxious smartphone junkie, there’s one rule I try to follow:
Never look at your phone in a situation where it wouldn’t be appropriate to read a book. Seriously.
For instance, you wouldn’t start reading a book in the middle of a conversation with someone. Or while watching a film. Or at a concert. Or while driving. Or in a meeting. But switch the book for a phone and it’s fine.
On the other hand, it would be perfectly acceptable to, for example, read when you’re on the train or bus. Or on a lunch break. Or in your dentist’s waiting room. Or basically any situation where you’re not expected to engage with other people or your surroundings.
In short, you wouldn’t start reading a book:
a) in a situation that requires your full focus
b) when someone else is engaging with you
c) when something interesting or special is going on.
People get seriously annoyed, offended or even concerned if you read while they’re talking to you, or at a party, or while visiting a beautiful place, or as you walk along a crowded sidewalk or subway platform. I’ve tested this many times.
Why should looking at a phone be any different? If anything, it’s easier to get sucked into Twitter or Snapchat and lose any awareness of what’s going on around you than it is to get sucked into a book.
When you read, you’re far more present than when you’re cycling between apps. And you read a book because you want to read that book, whereas most people look at their phone because they’re not stimulated enough by their surroundings.
There’s an enormous difference between treating your phone as a tool and treating it as a constant source of entertainment.
Yes, there are obviously a million justifications and good reasons to get out your phone — checking the time, answering an important call, taking a photo, booking a taxi, looking up a place to eat, whatever.
In many of those situations, it’s a replacement for a physical object. In others, it’s a replacement for engaging.
Tom Chatfield writes in How To Thrive In The Digital Age:
‘Plugging into your headphones, talking or texting or even filming whats around you, you occupy a stock role in the drama of digital living: the self-sufficient citizen, shielded from the dull restrictions of actuality by sounds, visuals, friends on tap.’
That’s the point: when you regard your phone as something to serve a function, you’re still part of the world around you. When you use it without intention, you’re essentially rejecting your surroundings.
Or as David Cain put it:
“Whenever I’m playing with my phone I am only shortening my life. A smartphone is useful if you have a specific thing you want to do, but ninety per cent of the time the thing I want to do is avoid doing something harder than surfing Reddit. During those minutes or hours, all I’m doing is dying.”