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12 Unwritten Rules of Cell Phone Etiquette
/ December 14, 2006 8:28 am

There are some hard, cold truths to the way we use our cell phones, but they’ve become commonplace to the point of forming an accepted, unwritten code. We all screen calls we should otherwise answer. We all reply to missed calls with texts. We pray to reach voicemail on calls we have to (but don’t want to) make. When we call someone and they don’t answer, and we know they looked at their phone and made a decision to ignore our call, we’re okay with that, because we likely, at some point in the day, did the same thing to someone else.

The following are twelve unwritten rules of cell phone etiquette:

1) Screening Calls
Some people are disgracefully obvious when it comes to screening. It’s important to screen calls with a fine touch. You’re allowed to do it; you just can’t do it too often. You must answer a call now and then.

SIDE NOTE: I’ll say it straight out so there’s no confusion later: The greatest and most exploited feature of the cell phone is that no one really knows where you are and what you’re doing, and therein lies the basis for nearly all of the rules of cell phone etiquette.

2) The Missed Call / Quick Reply Conundrum: Part 1

Occasionally we legitimately miss a call. If it’s a call we wanted to take, we’ll return it immediately. Doing so is also a great way to ensure being unscreened.

There is, however, a time limit on whether a person has an obligation to pick up. If, say, you return a missed call within thirty seconds, the call must be picked up. Period. Screening looks bad in that situation. If you call back 5 minutes later, though – well, that gives the person the legitimate right to access any one of a hundred excuses.

And, for the record, excuses are completely permissible in cell phone etiquette, even if we know it’s only an excuse and not the truth.

3) The Missed Call / Quick Reply Conundrum: Part 2
Replying to a missed call with a text is acceptable, even though it is a clear indication that you preferred not to talk. After all, maybe you’re at a movie and couldn’t take the call in the first place. Or maybe you’re in a meeting, or in the elevator, or on the bus or the train (more on that shortly). Sending a text is a great way of indicating that yes, you saw the call, and you wanted to take it, but you just couldn’t. You couldn’t! You wanted to, but you couldn’t. Sorry. Here’s a text. You’re my friend. I love you.

But even if you could’ve, replying with a text is perfectly fine anyway (some would even say preferred), and is in line with proper etiquette.

4) Conveniently Dropped Calls

Intentionally dropping a call when a conversation goes south (either poorly, too long, or both) is one of the most useful tricks in the book. It becomes painfully obvious that the conversation simply has to end, immediately.

You can, in this situation, simply close your phone, and end the call. In fact, the more arbitrarily the call ends, the less obvious it will be that you intentionally ended it. And, most importantly, it’s one of the most difficult tactics to uncover. You’re basically guaranteed success.

You can then recommence the conversation at your leisure, even days later, if you want. And the excuses are numerous: “After I lost you, I saw my boss and we got tied up with something,” or, “I went into a bar and I got no reception.” More on that to follow…

5) The Beauty of Poor Reception
Poor reception is one of the underappreciated gems of the cell phone. I get zero reception in my house but some people get full bars. I hit dead spots where others have no problem. The inconsistencies are so consistent that we don’t even question them. It’s the ace in everyone’s sleeve. And as I said before, it is undetectable. No one even doubts a person’s sincerity because it happens all the time anyway, even on calls you don’t intentionally end.

6) The (Im)Personal Text Message
It depends who you’re texting for “The (Im)Personal Text” to become a “Booty Text,” but it’s basically the same thing. (Im)Personal Texts are like BCC’s on email. They’re a great way to cover a lot of territory in one shot. Texts are not only perfect for their convenience (and because they prevent a live conversation), but they take a little effort to write, and recipients feel the love like their mom’s PBJs in grade school.

To jump over to “Booty Text” territory, the (Im)Personal Text is sent to multiple objects of a sexual desire, thus accomplishing the same illusion of effort and interest while increasing your odds for success.

7) The (Im)Personal Text Message: Booty Text Remix
It is crucial you craft a message the recipients of the Booty Text do not decipher as a Booty Text. Don’t be too personal, but don’t be too general, either. Ask a question: “Do you want to come over later?”

8 ) Talking in Public
Rudy Giuliani did a great service to New York City when he curbed car horn abuse. The same should go for the cell phone.

There are a few particularly bad places to talk on your cell, but none worse than the gate at an airport. You’re sitting there for at least 30 minutes, and there’s really no escape. Most people don’t like flying anyway, and to add someone yapping on their cell while you’re trying to read is a horrible addition to an already horrible experience. If you need to use your phone, stand up and walk around. Just as there are smoking rooms in airports, so too do there need to be cell phone rooms.

But more than that, people need to recognize the error of their ways and the extent of their poor etiquette. Don’t talk in elevators. Don’t talk in buses or trains. Any place where people are cramped and space is limited, don’t talk. You make no friends that way. Texting is a great option and should be used whenever possible. It’s unobtrusive and quiet. Text, people. For the love of God, text.

9) Phone Tag: Part 1
If a game of phone tag goes on for 4 calls (that is, both parties make 2 calls that go unanswered), it is within the boundaries of proper etiquette to end the game and stop calling. Communication has occurred.

In placing 2 calls each, you’ve both sufficiently said your hellos, and by the voicemails you’ve left it’s clear the call has no urgent purpose. It’s the same as running into someone on the street and saying, “Hi, great to see you, I’m in a rush, let’s catch up later.” No one minds, even if you’re not actually in a rush and don’t really feel like catching up later, because the other person likely feels the exact same way.

10) Phone Tag: Part 2
If one of the parties on a game of phone tag leaves a message that says, “Quite a little game of phone tag we have going on here,” or, “Tag, you’re it,” you are free to not return the call.

11) Lengthy Voicemail Messages
If I reach your voicemail, don’t you think I already know you can’t take my call right now and want me to leave my name, number, and a brief message? Do you need to waste my time telling me that? The whole process of leaving a message to begin with is too long. The last thing I want when I finally reach your personal greeting is a lengthy description of what you want me to do. We’ve been using cell phones long enough to know the drill. Just as you want my message to be brief, so too do I want you to keep your personal greeting short.

12) Ring Tones
A ring tone is humorous the first time it is played and has a window of three subsequent rings before it becomes annoying. At that point you either need to buy a new ring tone, or put your phone on vibrate (and if that’s too much to ask, you need to use a generic tone).

Scott Goldberg


16 Comments

  • common sense .. yes ..

    easy etiquette … yes

    you would be surprised how many ignorant people think they are “better” than that, and this “does not apply” to them … they are better than us all ….. they dont think they are doing anything wrong ….. afterwall its “free speech” right …

    we are free to fart in people’s faces in public .. but would we do it ? .. and then turn our heads and laugh into the air, not even knowing what we really did. or even caring ? ..

    this is what it feels like when people are talking on their cellphones obnoxiously around you …

    imagine that ……

  • common sense .. yes ..

    easy etiquette … yes

    you would be surprised how many ignorant people think they are “better” than that, and this “does not apply” to them … they are better than us all ….. they dont think they are doing anything wrong ….. afterwall its “free speech” right …

    we are free to fart in people’s faces in public .. but would we do it ? .. and then turn our heads and laugh into the air, not even knowing what we really did. or even caring ? ..

    this is what it feels like when people are talking on their cellphones obnoxiously around you …

    imagine that ……

  • Please – leave the cell phone outside the bathroom door.
    I certainly don’t want to hear what you are doing on the toilet and on the flip side – I don’t others to hear what I am doing on the toilet – even if it doesn’t bother you.

  • Why is it that people think it’s OK to carry on a conversation on their cell when they’re physically with other company? I’ve had a friend answer her phone while I’m eating with her in a restaurant — and she continued to carry on a conversation for about 10 minutes while I’m forced to sit there and hear her talk. I also had a friend take a call while we were in a car together — a 45 minute drive, and she spent about 30 minutes of it talking to someone else while I drove. Am I a chauffeur, or something??

  • This is the worst advice ever. I mean are you f***ing serious this is the biggest amount of bullshit that I’ve heard in my life and I’m 80. This is just so bad.

  • I can’t stand when people talk on their cell phones in my car. I’ve come to pick you up and now I have to turn the volume down and listen to you talk to someone else for 10 minutes? RUDE.

  • I have also had the experience of a friend (a former Luddite who only recently aquired a “smart” phone) take his cell phone out of his pocket and begin talking while I was in the middle of a sentence. This took place in a public place, and for a few seconds I didn’t even realize that I was babbling to myself because the phone was set to “throb” or “palpitate” or whatever it’s called. The call could have been important, but whatever happened to, “Excuse me, do you mind if I take this call? It’s my ex-wife.” Or, “I’m sorry, hold that thought. I need to take this.” More and more it seems technology encourages rudeness.

  • anger management, dude.

  • Old man, you have to change with the times. These rules may have been BS in your time, but most people today support these rules.

  • Communication is HIGHLY important, and communication skills in my opinion are the MOST important. They are using the label “Cell phone etiquette”, but what this all boils down to is , giving respect to another person(s) you are around. These guidelines are just basic common courtesy within our now high tech, and busy life styles we lead. E.G. If you are spending time with another person for whatever reason, then give them your attention (except for emergencies). Just treat people the way you would want to be treated. If people you associate with accept your phone etiquette, then those will be the ones you will attract. I prefer to attract people around me, that respect me, my privacy, my time, and in return likewise.
    Always liked this passage “Water seeks its own level”.

  • I personally dont like phone tag. Two calls is the max. I dont return calls that result in messages: “Tage your it”. Very nice rules.

  • Well I would add to these rules a new one “Don’t hang up until you finished talking”.

  • To be frank I didn’t knew that there is such a thing called cell phone etiquette I thought that the simple phone etiquette is applied.

  • I think there is to much emphasis on communication these days — if you dont feel like talking – then don’t. This doesn’t seem at all like etiquitte and more of your own personal preferences of how you would like people to communicate with you. Every communication is different with every person and to assume they will follow these guidelines is quite preposterous. In the end there is nothing more human than face to face interraction.

  • Well, life is not about following rules, is it? ;)

  • I think there is to much emphasis on communication these days — if you don’t feel like talking – then don’t. This doesn’t seem at all like etiquette and more of your own personal preferences of how you would like people to communicate with you.

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