I have a question about cell phones: How do we use them politely in public? I’ve been on both sides of it lately. One day, I was having an important conversation with a colleague, sitting on a restaurant patio at lunch time. A friend, who I used to work with, came over and insisted on showing me photos of his vacation. I didn’t want to look at his pictures! I wanted to continue my conversation. I kind of ignored the guy with his phone, and eventually he walked away.

Another time, I was waiting for friends at a bar, when someone that I didn’t want to talk to walked in. I stared at my phone, and stopped looking around. Eventually, my friends showed up, so I had to look up. He was looking right at me, and walked over. I pretended to be surprised, and said “Hi!” He said, “I’ve been here a while, but you acted like you didn’t see me.” I felt ashamed to be called out for my bad behavior, but honestly would have done the same thing again.

What are your thoughts about cell phones in public? It seems like everyone has theirs attached to their hand.
Love/Hate my Cell Phone

Dear Love/Hate,

I, too, wonder about cell phone etiquette, especially with teenagers. They pull them out in the middle of a conversation, or at the dinner table! I judge it as rude; they see it as normal behavior. At a local band’s concert, I saw several young fans sitting on the edge of the stage, just about a foot off the dance floor. Instead of watching the show, all their heads were turned down, looking at their phones! I guess they were texting, or on social media…which I guess the band would like, because it’s promoting their work. Right!? But, all I could think was, “Why aren’t they enjoying the show?”

My phone makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on. It distracts me. When I look up, several minutes have gone by and I’ve lost track of the conversation. We recently went out with some friends, and were guilty of checking in and posting photos on our phones. We chided each other about it. Maybe it’s a good thing? Am I getting younger, acting like a teenager?!

I’m old school on this one: Put the phone down as much as possible when you’re with other people. In your two examples, I laughed at the man approaching your table with a phone full of photos. Can you imagine, pre-digital media, having carried around a stack of prints to show to people you happen to run into? We never would have done that. Remember going to friends for drinks or dinner, and being held captive by your hosts until you view every last shot from the Alaskan cruise? You were trapped in a very similar way at lunch. No wonder you were rude to him.

Today, social media makes it easy to publish photos and stories about the best part of our lives. We’re more connected, but more isolated, too. This short, powerful video examines “The Innovation of Loneliness” calling it, “The most common ailment if the modern world.”

The Innovation of Loneliness from BOLD Studio on Vimeo.

In the second scenario, using the phone to keep someone away from you, is it helpful? It depends which side of the phone you’re standing on. How might you have handled that situation without your phone? Probably stammer through a few moments of awkward conversation until your friends arrived. How hard is that, really? These are tough questions about how we use our phones, as much as how we judge how others using theirs. Here’s a great article on the subject.

New communications media always bring new dilemmas in how to use them in effective, and humane, ways. When the telephone was first invented, critics complained that it would diminish the power of face-to-face conversations. They were right. But, it also brought connection with loved ones miles and miles away, and accelerated business and entertainment. There’s always a trade-off. My advice is what we’ve been taught all our lives: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, only show the vacation pictures when asked, put the phone away, and smile at your fellow human beings. That connection may be just what they need.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

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