Shirley's Articles / Personal Effectiveness

Play Nice With Your Cell Phone

“Hey Dave, you won’t believe what the doctor told me yesterday” is not quite what any of us wants to hear from our table-mate at a seminar, even if the seminar hasn’t started yet and even if the statement is not directed at us.

Cell phones have become ubiquitous in today’s society, but standards of behaviour for their use have lagged behind a bit. If you want to stay on good footing with your co-workers, supervisors, friends, family — pretty much everyone you come in contact with, including strangers — remember that good cell phone etiquette boils down to one basic rule:

Use good judgment

Using good judgment with your cell phone use can make people sit up and take notice of your first-rate behaviour. Because today’s cell phones allow us to do so much more than the word ‘phone’ implies — talk, text, search the Internet, watch movies, listen to music, review and respond to emails, play games, and more — a simple list of tips just won’t do.

Each of these activities requires good judgment on your part as to whether a certain time and place is appropriate for a particular activity or not. That’s why a short behavioural analysis is more effective than a list to help you determine good cell phone etiquette on your own. Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering using your cell phone:

  1. What are you doing?
  2. What are the people around you doing?
  3. Will you be interacting with the people around you in any way?
    (hint: if the answer is yes, then let good manners prevail)
  4. Will your activity disturb the people around you in any way?
    (hint: see the hint above)
  5. What is the importance of the call compared to the first four issues?

One example where people tend not to use good judgment is when driving. The answers to these questions in a driving situation suggest that your safety and the safety of the people in other cars are more important than a phone call; it’s certainly more important than a text or a game.

You might not want to turn the phone off while driving, but certainly if you receive a call that needs to be handled right then, it would be good judgment to pull over to the side of the road or find a parking lot to complete the conversation. Hands-free use is great, but it’s not your hands that are trying to concentrate on busy traffic and the big merger all at the same time.

And what about the business lunch where you are expecting an important call regarding a huge sale? You have a couple of different ways you can handle the situation. You could turn your phone off, but that’s not particularly polite to the person who might be using their lunchtime to get this important information to you. You could answer the call and discuss the entire deal for the rest of the hour, but that’s not going to be polite to your lunch companions.

Answering the above questions suggests that good manners would dictate letting the others know at the start of lunch that you are expecting a very important call. Apologise to them beforehand and let them know that if you do get the call during lunch, you will keep it short. Thank them for their understanding. Put your phone on vibrate, and if the call does come through, excuse yourself and step away or even outside to keep disruption of their meeting to a minimum.

Good manners are a major component of good judgment. If you are in your office with the door closed, working on a presentation, perhaps listening to music with your headphones helps you produce more creative ideas. If that’s true for you, then go for it and ‘play that funky music!’ However, sitting next to someone on the commuter train with music blasting so loud from the headphones that people sitting two rows back can ‘name that tune’ is not such a good idea!

Really, a list of rules won’t help you be noticed for your good cell phone etiquette. Instead, learn to develop the best behaviour by keeping in mind the five questions. If the answers suggest you might be causing the people around you danger, irritation or embarrassment, put your phone away and help boost your good reputation.

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Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

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