Taming Technology in Public

by Daniel Post Senning on May 21, 2013

Q: I am working on a project to define proper etiquette for urban use of technology as to not disturb others around you, yet maintain proper social behavior. What are your suggestions towards proper etiquette when using smart phones, PDAs, cell phones, MP3 players, game systems and others in the public and very urban environment?

A: The technologies you describe can be demons in two ways: either they disturb the public “peace” or they interrupt social interactions.

In an urban or social environment, it is important for people to be respectful of each other’s space and privacy. For example, no one would think of picking up a telephone in the middle of a crowded space and having a very loud conversation about one’s private life. The phone booth was brilliant – it made the technology and convenience of the telephone available publicly, but provided the caller with a private, enclosed space in which to use it.

Well, cell phones don’t have a phone booth equivalent. However, they do have many features that help make the cell phone less of an imposition on others. Using the vibrate mode and voicemail are one way to “tame” the technology when in a public space. Check messages and make calls privately. Make sure that you use a normal voice tone – people tend to speak louder when using cell phones.

The MP3 player may not disturb the public peace – unless the listener is singing along at the top of his voice – but it does pose a safety hazard. If the volume is turned up, the listener can’t hear other environmental sounds – such as warning sounds – horn beeps, a warning shout, sirens.

PDA’s, pagers and smart phones are more of a distraction and an interruption. Some people are constantly checking for messages, sending messages. That’s fine when you are on your own, but it is not considerate to be sending and receiving messages when in a meeting or when having a conversation with someone, just as you shouldn’t answer your cell phone if you are in the middle of a conversation.

Our philosophy is that etiquette is based on kindness, consideration, honesty and respect. When we apply these principles to our actions, we will generally choose to do the considerate thing. Right now our society is somewhat in thrall to these electronic devices. We need to learn to be masters of the technology – using it appropriately and considerately.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Crystal Waterford May 21, 2013 at 12:28 pm

You wrote: The MP3 player may not disturb the public peace – unless the listener is singing along at the top of his voice – but it does pose a safety hazard. If the volume is turned up, the listener can’t hear other environmental sounds – such as warning sounds – horn beeps, a warning shout, sirens.

This is far short of the impact of the MP3 player. Many people do not bother to check their headphones for sound bleed, condemning those around them (particularly on the bus or train) to the half-heard soundtrack of somebody else’s choice. And invariably, a request that the individual turn down the music is met with a coarse variation of “why should I” or “you can’t make me”.

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Q&A May 21, 2013 at 6:41 pm

It’s normally ok if done discretely, however, when the person’s phone makes a goofy noise for each incoming text message, it can be an obnoxious distraction. It’s also rude if you’re on a date or meeting someone and at the first sign of silence, whip it out instead of starting a new subject or making small talk.

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Michelle January 17, 2014 at 7:19 am

“For example, no one would think of picking up a telephone in the middle of a crowded space and having a very loud conversation about one’s private life. ”
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I disagree with that; people do that all the time and it’s rude, annoying and selfish on the person’s part.
Cell phone abuse is everywhere. I see groups of people out together for dinner and they’re all talking or texting on their phones with other people.

In public places, I think it is a good idea to silence phones, especially when out with family and friends. You do not want them thinking your calls or texts are more important than they are.
If it is an emergency situation, be gracious and apologize for having to take a call or reply to a text and then take it outside.

Simply put, be respectful of others, this includes strangers.

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