A few weeks ago I emailed some readers of this column and asked if they had any ideas for new rules of etiquette they’d like to see their fellow citizens follow when it comes to mobile phone use. I was hoping I might get one or two dozen suggestions.
Boy, was I stupid.
My little invitation unleashed a veritable tsunami of suggestions buried beneath a landslide of vitriol concerning the inconsiderate, sickening, self-centered behavior of just about everybody who’s ever put a cell phone to an ear. As I read these blistering expressions of outrage, three things became clear:
1. Nobody is innocent. I know from direct experience that some of the most strident fulminators on this topic are also among the worst offenders of the very behaviors they decry. It’s a saving grace, though, that many of them seem to be aware of this.
2. I myself am guilty of numerous felonious violations.
3. We are becoming a society of oblivious jackwagons.
I’ll tell you right now that I have no hope that anything I’m about to say will have much actual impact on our headlong slide into a bottomless abyss of epic rudeness. I say this because I’ve discovered that, with alarming frequency, many offenders are already aware of their offenses, and of how offensive they are, yet they only seem to care when others are doing the offending.
So I’m aiming this at those who have not yet come to see the error of their ways and might be more prone to self-correction than the narcissistic yahoos who just don’t care.
Fingers crossed, here are some recommended rules addressing the offenses reported to me over the last few weeks. I tried to stay away from the obvious ones, like “Don’t text while driving,” although I must report one comment I got that floored me: “There ought to be a law against texting while driving.” Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about how effective enforcement of existing law has been.
1. “Phones away” when dining, whether in the home or out. This was the big one in my informal survey. The single most popular suggestion from businesspeople was that everybody put their phones in the center of the table and the first one to reach for his or hers picks up the entire tab.
But I disagree with the implementation details of this suggestion. “Phubbing” (short for “phone snubbing”) is what it’s called when someone tunes out the people in his immediate surroundings because the phone demands attention. The phones need to be out of sight and out of pocket. If you want to see a phone addict get a serious case of the screaming meemies, let him put his phone on the table but not touch it. As soon as the screen lights up with a text or call, his eyes will clamp onto it as though it was the countdown timer on a nuclear device. You could be describing a new cure for cancer or setting his briefcase on fire and he won’t hear or see you. The physical manifestations of this utter distraction are not unlike those of a junkie overdue for a fix who just spotted his dealer. And if he happens to be a naturally polite person who is trying really, really hard to pretend he doesn’t see or hear the phone, you’ll be treated to the thousand-yard stare that says, “It’s taking so much effort to keep looking at you instead of the phone that my head is about to explode,” which is when you blow out your breath and say, “Do us both a favor and answer it before I smash it to bits with a beer bottle.”
Remedy: Stare relentlessly at the person as he uses the phone. That’s the polite way. What I myself do, by contrast, is say something like, “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” or, “How about putting that [expletive deleted] piece of [expletive deleted] away?"
2. Hands-free devices. These can be a literal life-saver when driving, but when you’re in a public place, don’t use them, especially if you’re one of those people who believes that you need to double your decibel level when speaking on one. And no, it’s not okay to dictate using Siri when people are around. As my friend GS put it, engage in phone interactions the way you engage in sexual ones: with discretion, in private, consensually, and as though it was nobody else’s business but your own.
Remedy (and I’ve done this, including in a doctor’s office and at an airline club at DFW just last week): Take out your own phone and start video recording the offender, from as close a distance as you’re comfortable. At the exact moment that he decides to tell you he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll (usually) realize that he’s got little high ground from which to be critical, and will stop. And if he doesn’t, you’ve got some great material for YouTube.
3. Leave them off in the movies: Even if they’re on silent, don’t turn them on, because in a darkened auditorium they light up like rescue flares and instantly destroy the transporting experience that makes people go to the movies in the first place.
Remedy: Same as #1, above. I did that just a few days ago in an especially dark theater in New York and my new friends at the Columbia-Presbyterian ER assure me that I’ll be able to sit up and take nourishment any day now.
4. Parking lot courtesy: Surprising how often I heard this one. You’re driving around a parking lot looking for a spot when you see brake and backup lights appear. Huzzah! you think in misplaced glee, as nothing happens for the next ten minutes because the driver is texting away with his foot on the brake and the gearshift in reverse. Don’t be like that guy. Either move out or leave the ignition off and your foot off the brake.
Remedy: None. Deal with it.
5. Don’t stare at your phone while walking: Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Sure, like staying away from sugary desserts and how is that working out for you? During the same trip to the Big Apple as referenced above, I was early to a meeting at 39th and Broadway so stood outside for about fifteen minutes. In that brief span of time, in that random location, I saw roughly a dozen incidents of near and actual collisions, one of which resulted in an angry shoving match, as well as one slamming-on-the-brakes episode as – my hand to God – both the pedestrian and truck driver had their eyes on their phones. (If you read my column on self-driving cars a few weeks ago, you’ll know that traffic fatalities have dropped precipitously since the 70s, but what I didn’t mention is that 2016 saw the largest annual percentage increase in fifty years. One of the biggest culprits is the benignly named “distracted driving,” which might have cost as many as 3,000 lives in the U.S. last year.)
Remedy: Yell “Heads up!” in a loud, angry voice. Gets ‘em every time. (And if you’re going to text while driving, at least have the good sense to put your car on cruise control... OMG, yes, of course I’m kidding. Gee whiz...)
6. Don’t yak on your phone in a public john. Seriously.
7. Don’t email on your laptop during meetings. Not applicable to mobile phones, really, but it was a real hot button for a lot of people. It’s disrespectful, and trust me on this, everyone knows you’re doing it, because why would you be furiously taking notes when somebody is talking about the weekly ‘fridge cleaning?
Remedy: a) Suddenly ask the offender for his reaction to what was just said, or b) Send him an email and tell him to cut it out. (The facial expression when they get the email is priceless.)
8. Don’t call just to chat while driving. Some controversy about this one. I hate getting a phone call from someone who’s driving, has nothing but time to kill and wants to pass the time of day without caring a jot that I might not be similarly unencumbered. Others think it’s fine, because you can always tell the caller you don’t have time. Your call (so to speak).
9. Don’t be so quick to Google the answer. I really like this one. Back in the day when a question of fact came up in conversation, lively debate would ensue and much learning would take place on the way to the answer. It was great fun. Now, if someone says, “I wonder who that actor was who said, ‘I gots to know!’ in ‘Dirty Harry,’” out pop all the phones and everyone races to see who can Google the answer the quickest. *
Remedy: Hold a hand up quickly and say, “Just for fun, let’s figure this out without the phones.” (NB: It never works, but try anyway.)
In all seriousness for a second: The only solution is one-on-one pressure. Make your annoyance known — but do it gently: Despite my in-jest histrionics above, the people who irk us with these behaviors are not necessarily bad people, or self-centered or narcissistic. Most don’t do these things often, just once in a while, exactly like the rest of us. The occasional reminder might be all they need to dial it down a notch.
(* Albert Popwell. If you don’t believe me, Google it.)
Lee Gruenfeld is a Principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Support.com, Senior Vice President and General Manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a Partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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