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Most Americans say smartphone use in social settings is rude
A recent Pew Research Center study of more than 3,000 adults found that while 82 percent call cell phone use a social hinderance, 89 percent they use cell phones during a social gathering. - photo by Chandra Johnson
You might say good manners run in the Daniel Post Senning family.

Senning is a spokesman, author and podcaster with the Emily Post Institute a family run etiquette consultant firm based in Vermont.

Over five generations, the Post family has documented how American etiquette has changed from how young people were expected to leave calling cards to initiate a courtship in the early 20th century to how to compose the most professional email today.

Yet, even Senning admits when it comes to mobile phones, the rules of etiquette get tricky.

We live in a world thats changing and evolving (technologically), and its getting faster, Senning said. Thats put a lot of stresses on our social expectations, and whenever new things (like mobile devices) emerge, the expectations change almost as rapidly.

As mobile devices have become a central part of everyday life, society is coming up with new social norms around their use.

A new Pew Research Center study found that while 82 percent of adults say their phones are a social hindrance, 89 percent said they used their phones during a social gathering in some way, be it taking photos or checking email.

Pew study co-author Lee Rainie said the findings held important implications for what future generations will consider good manners in social settings.

Theres this idea that our devices makes us more isolated socially and in an isolated culture, conversation, for instance, is a lost art, Rainie said. Humans are social animals and our use of devices is changing what it means to be social.

Creating new etiquette rules for mobile technology is more complicated than for previous technological advances (like the telephone) because today, users nearly always have their devices with them. The Pew study reported that 90 percent of cellphone owners say they carry their devices with them frequently.

While mobile phones are a constant presence, the study found theyre not always a welcome one. About three-quarters of people surveyed agreed that device use on the street, public transit or while waiting in line was generally OK, but an overwhelming majority reported that mobile phones in restaurants (62 percent), the dinner table (88 percent), movie theaters (95 percent) or church (96 percent) was not OK.

"Were groping toward social consensus, but were not there yet, Rainie said. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and thats why its harder to manage.

For Palm Beach, California-based etiquette expert and instructor Jacqueline Whitmore, mobile device usage isnt just complicating etiquette, its attacking a core concept of good etiquette and civil behavior: respect for others.

It all boils down to respect having enough respect for someone to give them your time, especially now that we have less of it, Whitmore said. When you give someone your undivided attention, thats valuable. Time is the most valuable commodity we have.

Social presence

This is not the first time technology has forced people to rethink their behavior, Senning said. Another device once called for a rewrite of the rules of good manners.

The telephone, without question, changed everything, Senning said. When it was first introduced, there were concerns of, would a family ever be able to have dinner again without that infernal device going off? Were undergoing a similar revolution now.

Iowa etiquette expert Callista Gould says etiquette for social gatherings was originally developed in the French royal court so that newcomers to court could avoid embarrassment. Etiquette, from the French word, literally translates into little notes. Gould says its incredibly difficult to agree on etiquette for mobile devices because users are balancing their social presence in two places at once online and in real life.

Etiquette is not a bunch of stuffy rules, its about being attentive to other peoples needs. Every rule is designed for the comfort of everyone involved, which is what makes this so interesting, Gould said. Now theres a physical world and a virtual one.

That raises a new question for the digital age, Rainie said: Which is more rude: being inattentive during an in-person conversation, or not quickly responding to text message and email? Pew doesnt know the answer to that yet.

I actually wish we had asked that because what are the expectations? Rainie said. If youre always on the phone, youre maybe not as attentive in real life, but if you take, lets say, 24 hours to respond (to a text or email), youre not treating me like a worthwhile conversation partner.

Yet, mobile phone use can sometimes be considered good manners. The Pew study found that many people 78 percent said they used their phones to the benefit of their social group in ways like taking photos, looking up information or directions, or to connect with other people known to the group. Still, around 70 percent of respondents reported they used their phones in public for no reason at all which tells Gould that people are still using their phones to shut out their immediate surroundings.

That number really concerned me because its down to that same problem where they may not think theyre using their phones to disengage, but that tells me they are, Gould said. When we use it to disengage, even unconsciously, thats when it becomes rude behavior.

Lack of awareness

Rudeness in any situation, Senning says, basically comes down to a lack of awareness. For those who use their devices constantly, Senning says the key to being polite is to be more aware of their surroundings.

The unintentional offense is more likely when doing things habitually, Senning said. Its so easy to see that rudeness in others but what we need to do is focus that on ourselves and our own behavior. Think about how, when and where you use (the device).

Whitmore agrees, saying that its easy to blame mobile devices for the users bad manners.

It really is just a phone, Whitmore said. What matters is how you use it, and thats something this generation, that was born using it, really needs to improve on.

Gould says because so much about the Internet and social media use is about self-interests from selfies to talking on the phone rather than face to face its easy to not stop and think about how device use can disturb others.

Its undeniable how these have devices made our lives better, but good etiquette is still about making the people around you feel comfortable, Gould said. Enjoy the benefits of the technology, but just watch youre not cutting people out.

Senning says while technology may change specific rules of polite behavior, the core principles of etiquette never change. Respect is the ultimate guideline to judge a situation before someone pulls his or her phone out of his or her pocket, wherever her or she is.

Even in most wild west circumstances of the Internet, social expectations start to crystallize very quickly look at how aggrieved people get when someone breaks the perceived rules and says something horrible, Senning said. The rules absolutely change, but the underlying concepts of respect, consideration and honesty are always there to guide us when were not sure what to do.