It’s Time to Talk- Mobile Etiquette

mobile use in public

In Kenichi Ishii’s article “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” he broaches the topic mobile communications and relationships in everyday life. Specifically, one area he explores is the use of mobile communications in public areas. In general, Ishii found that mobile phone users are criticized for violating the implicit rules of public space. When thinking about these implicit rules in everyday life, it makes sense. We all have encountered times when we have witnessed loud or annoying phone conversations in public. Despite public cell phone use being something that everyone finds annoying, many people continue to do. Perhaps they do it to feel important, or less alone, but no matter the reason, for better or worse, these private conversations have an audience.

Everyday Occurrences

I have a coworker who frequently makes private cell phone calls at work. Even though she steps aside to a “private” area to makes these calls, there is little privacy. I’ve found out more about her mother’s health conditions, her sister’s financial problems and issues dealing with internet providers than I care to know. The first time I heard it happen I thought it was a little odd, but because it was about her mother’s health issues I figured it was situational. As it continued to happen, it was made clear that she doesn’t realize that these private conversations are very public. These are things that she normally would not share with me (or probably the majority of my coworkers), yet she seems oblivious to it. Its not that I’m trying to eavesdrop on her calls, but the one sided conversation is so apparent to anyone within ear shot.

The Facts

Luckily, Psychology Today has an explanation for why we find these conversations to annoying.  In part, its because cell phone conversations are generally louder than a face to face conversation. Forma and Kaplowitz found that cell phone conversations are 1.6 times louder than in person conversations– a slight difference, but noticeable nonetheless. Because its hard not to overhear, and the lack of respect this implies for the others around you is grating.

In addition to loudness, these conversations are irritating because they are intruding into our consciousnessLauren Emberson, a psychologist from Cornell University found that when you hear a live conversation, you know what everyone is saying because it’s all there for you to hear. In contrast, when you hear a cell phone conversation, you don’t know what the other person is saying, so your brain tries to piece it all together. Because this takes more mental energy than simply hearing both sides of the conversation, it leaves less energy to allocate to whatever else you might be doing.

When is it Okay or Not Okay to Use Cell Phones

A study from the Pew Research Center found about three-quarters of all adults, including those who do not use cellphones, say that it is “generally OK” to use cellphones in unavoidably public areas, such as when walking down the street, while on public transportation or while waiting in line. In contrast, they found that younger generations are more accepting of cell phone use in public. While the definition of “cell phone use” in this study was not clearly defined, it generally is presumed that it means holding a conversation rather than texting.

For instance, only half of young adults found it okay to use cell phones in restaurants, this activity was frowned upon by older generations. Places where cell phone use is considered unacceptable in both groups include family dinner, movie theaters or worship services.

Enough is Enough: Cell Phone Crashing

Greg Benson had enough of annoying people talking loudly in public and decided to take things into his own hands. To fill a void in a layover in an airport he came up with the idea of “cell phone crashing”.  In “crashing” the prankster sits next to someone talking on their phone, and then proceed to fill in the gaps left in the one-sided conversation. When one person said “What should we have for dinner?” into the phone, he responded, “I don’t know. Steak and potatoes sound good.” pretending to talk on his own phone. The whole process is filmed with a camera hidden from afar as the hilarity ensues. While the video may give you a few laughs, it may also help you reconsider how public your cell phone conversations in public really are.

So, what do you think? Should mobile devices be banned in certain areas? Or is this an infringement on our rights? 


Posted on November 15, 2015, in Blogs, mobile, Society, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    A problem with using social media and cell phones is that manners and etiquette fly out the window. On social media platforms like Facebook you can hide behind the anonymity of the distance and not actually knowing someone. These “safety nets” allow ignorance of what others perceive as offensive, and the assumption that how you behave is no longer important.
    Cell phone use particularly bothers me, almost to a point of distress. People think nothing of holding “private” conversations everywhere – including the bathroom. I was at Panera one day where a woman was so loud that she could be heard by the entire restaurant. Everyone looked annoyed and made faces, but no one DID anything. So I walked up and said “excuse me, but perhaps you’d be more comfortable outside where it’s more private.”

    Now, in the not too long ago past, she would have been embarrassed to be disturbing someone, she might have even left from shame, and she certainly would have gotten off the phone quickly. But this woman whirled around calling me names and getting in my face with her hands; I thought I was going to be hit. I calmly said that we don’t feel entitled to the contents of her call. She moved on and finally stopped. Four men came over and thanked me. But I was shaking from her hostility. In another instance, I stared at a woman next to me after she’d been on her phone 15 minutes discussing her operation. When she asked what I was doing I said I was enjoying her conversation, She replied it was private. Well, I pointed out it clearly wasn’t. Courtesy and consideration no longer exist when a cell phone comes out. And until the restaurant posts a “Take cell phone conversations outside,” I won’t return.

    Meanwhile Facebook, confirmed as one of the two most popular platforms in the world, is considered by many to be the place to “hang out” with friends and acquaintances. Recently I defended my FB from over 200 to 45 people I knew and CARED about. And remarks like “don’t you feel like your life is missing something, missing opportunities to network and make new friends?” Um, no. I don’t Twitter or blog (except for class and I’ve learned to appreciate it’s uses), Instagram, or whatever. And I’m questioned about why I’m anti social. It’s an interesting reaction. I keep in touch by using my cell phone to make phone calls. I still write letters and thank you notes. I visit friends. The point is – how can opting out of social media because I’m actually social in person – make me anti-social?

  2. HI Dana,

    I cannot believe that woman’s behavior at Panera!!!
    The fact that she became EXTREMELY hostile and even confrontational at your polite request to take her conversation elsewhere is shocking. Great for you for stepping up and saying something to her 🙂

  3. natashajmceachin


    This was a great post, and it made me reassess my “private” hide-away spot at my own job (I doubt anyone can hear me though). However, I’m a very outgoing person and I hardly ever notice strangers’ public cell phone conversations. I can’t even remember the last time I felt “annoyed” or disregarded by someone’s cell phone usage while out and about.

    I’m 27 years old, perhaps I’m part of the younger generation you’ve mentioned is more accepting of this issue. Maybe I’m just so desensitized to public cell phone use I’m blind to it, or maybe I’m as obnoxious as they come with my own cell phone habits and unable to gauge this behavior from a normal perspective.

    Regardless, I will definitely be more mindful of how I use my phone at work and when out. I’d hate to be that lady at work who broadcasts her business every lunch hour.

    • I think the fact that you have a “private” hide-away spot to make phone calls puts you in a good position, but it never hurts to double check!

      Also, I’m 27 years old as well and part of the “younger generation” I described. I find it interesting to see that while we are the same age this is a behavior that grates on me whereas it doesn’t bother you at all! Maybe I am just an old soul 🙂

  4. I very much appreciate the signs I’ve seen at the post office and a few restaurants about ending calls or not using phones at all, so I think anyone who complains about that trend doesn’t appreciate silence! Don’t get me started on people who use the phone in public restrooms.

    • Hah people on their phone in public restrooms definitely can be obnoxious!
      While I am tempted to dive into that topic, it seems like fuel for a long winded rant about respecting boundaries in public spaces.

      • Why would the person on the receiving end of the call want to hear what is happening in the bathroom? Flushes, sinks, doors, etc. Yuck!

  5. Hi Sarah,

    In part your post made me a bit self-conscious. I am definitely not one to talk on the phone in public and when I do, I feel like I am usually mumbling and not talking in full sentences (or at least that is my hope). But after reading this, now I will be even more paranoid (which isn’t a bad thing). This reminds me of my workplace and the idea around etiquette though, because the same can be said for people who are on work calls or even talking to someone near them. There are some people who are naturally SO loud and for me it’s the fact that they are just loud. And no matter how much our company might talk about “cubicle etiquette” (phones or not) people just don’t realize how much a voice can carry. I even wear headphones while I work when people are exceptionally chatty… I cannot tell you how much my blood boils when I can still hear them through my headphones!

    I am naturally irritated by loud people, especially in quiet situations. It was interesting to look at the percent of people and their own views of when it is okay or not okay to use cellphones. The public transportation scenario I felt was the only one where I was on the not OK side. For me quiet it’s not just quiet situations but confined spaces.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to personal preference and I might even throw the common sense card out there. For me it comes down to that mantra that treat others how you would be treated, except now it’s use your cell phone how you would want others to use their cell phones.


    • Sorry- I didn’t mean to make you paranoid! For the most part, if you use common sense you should be fine.

      I agree with what you said- cell phone etiquette is about being respectful of volume levels in public spaces. Like the example you mentioned about wearing ear buds at work to drown out your coworkers… many people don’t realize how loud they actually are.

      • Oh no you’re fine! I think many times I make myself paranoid. But it does amaze me at just how loud some people can be and not know it (even with the sideways stares they seem oblivious) .

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