OPINION- Smartphone Etiquette: A Practical Perspective on Coexisting Socially with Smartphones

The emergence of the Smartphone has introduced some important changes to how we interact socially. The Smartphone has the "CrackBerry" effect, but at a whole higher level than the Blackberry did when it first emerged. Smartphones do so many things that it is hard to get away from them. Not that I suggesting you get away from them. I am recommending a practical approach that is based on the realities of our daily lives.

If I could summarize the impact of Smartphones on social interaction it is, people on "Pause". Here are tell tail signs of the "Smartphone-Pause":

  • People walking down the streets standing still in their tracks staring at their hand.
  • Business people in meetings looking under the edge of the table while they type or scroll screens on their Smartphone.
  • Unfinished sentences when their Smartphone vibrates.
  • Pedestrians standing at "Walk" signs, on street corners, waiting while staring at their Smartphone, only to realize they missed the chance to cross the road.
  • Individuals standing outside while happily surfing an their Smartphone. This looks a lot like the crowd of smokers standing in front of buildings.Transit travelers with headphones on being entertained watching video and listening music, anxious to get a wireless signal again (withdrawal behaviour). This is true in Toronto where we have zero wireless coverage in our Subway (Tube, Metro) system. People will walk up to the station exit area and remain in the subway system, just to get a wireless signal to access their mobile media, text messages, and email.

The Social Issue

We are all adjusting to Mobile Media devices in our lives and there is this awkwardness attached to using these devices in a socially appropriate way. A similar issues is happening in the 0 - 20 something crowd who snap pictures for Facebook everywhere and anywhere. Often they are so caught up in the Facebook moment that they have little regard for people's privacy or the intrusiveness of their device's flash. But that is a whole other issue.

I was in a business presentation today, pitching my business ideas to a group of entrepreneurs and the issue of Smartphone etiquette came up. I would rather reframed it as:

How do we use our Smartphones every day without putting all our social interactions on pause. How do we balance the technology with our need to socially interact.

Some Suggested Work Arounds

Smartphones are here to stay, and quite frankly, I welcome their presence. I have freedom from my desktop computer and laptop. I can get information anywhere I need it, easily and concisely (assuming the site is mobile aware). So I am not sitting here writing with the perspective of a grumpy technophobe. I am trying to be constructive and offer some of my musings about how we can tackle this problem in our social interactions so the Smartphone can harmoniously co-exist with our social world.

Tip 1: Use the Assigned Ringtone Feature


On my iPhone I can assign ringtone's for different people. I took the time to set a business high priority ringtone, business low priority ringtone, friends ringtone, and strangers ringtone. These four categories work for me. So when the phone rings I know what category the person calling belongs to. This helps me figure out the requirement to answer the call, based on my social and physical location. I can reassign people to different categories depending on the project I am working on or the requirements I have to answer rapidly.

I am not suggesting that you screen all your calls. I am suggesting that you learn to organize your contacts into groups so you can find the most appropriate way to answer or not answer the call in a given social context.

If you know the person and choose not to answer the call, send a quick text message when you have a chance, as soon as you have the social space to do so. This lets the person know you cared about their call and you will be contacting them. Nobody likes a screener and it does not build social kudo points to screen all your calls.

Tip 2: When Smartphone-ing on the Street, Stand Off to the Side and Find Space

I am often on my Smartphone on the street, walking from one place to another. I have to check my emails and return some text messages. Sometimes I have to lookup information on a website, or check movie listings. Typical geek on the run stuff.

I now stand off to the side, out of the main street walking traffic. I find a park bench or a place to sit. I try to make some space to do all the tasks in one solid block of time. Typically 3-4 minutes. This reduces my chance of being killed on a street intersection due to lack of attention. It also makes sure I don't randomize my time and I focus on a solid burst of energy devoted to Smartphone activities. This is much more efficient and I make a lot less typos and mistakes sending out correspondence. This is important when you are doing business activities on your Smartphone. There is nothing more embarrassing than an email full of mistakes. I learned the hard way, and now I take the time to do it later, or do it right in a focused way.

Nobody can send an email while walking with any level of accuracy, clarity, or correctness. So I don't do it anymore. I take the time to stand or sit in a place where I am safe and can focus for 2-3 minutes.

Tip 3: Ask People If It is Okay

I like it when people ask me if it is okay for them to send a text message or an email when I am in their presence. It is really classy to do this. For example, a good friend of mine had to send a text to set up a meeting with a friend later that evening. He let me know he needed to send a text and would just be a minute. I took the time to read the menu and contemplate my life. He let me know as soon as he was finished sending the text message. Now that is just classy.

The issue is, permission. You are with a person socially and you are disregarding them in your presence for another type of communication with another person. It is important to make that space in your time together by asking permission, or at the very least, being clear about what you will be doing, and for how long. Try to not take 3 minutes if you say you will just be a minute. This type of behaviour is a real trust-trasher.

Tip 4: Chunk Your Time into Bursts of Similar Activities

Mobile Business Strategy

Having a day that is pushed and pulled by all sorts of random tasks leads to stress, burnout, a lack of productivity, and in my opinion-- anxiety. A lot of people say they can multi-task. I totally understand that you can't uni-task in the multi-tasking world of today. What I am saying is to continue multi-tasking, but consider a "burst" approach. Doing your tasks in bursts of similar activities. It is more productive, keeps you more focused, and you stay stress-free. Your mind can stay on task more easily when you are doing an activity burst. An example of an activity burst is sending text messages, checking email, and responding to high priority emails in once 3 minute chunk of time. Another burst could be surfing for movie listings, updating your twitter on your Smartphone, and approving a blog comment using Wordpress Mobile Admin.

Group your bursts into themes of similar activities. I group mine into following chunks:

  • People Communication
  • Data Collection and Info Finding
  • Voice Communication
  • Blog and Twitter Updates
  • To Do List Management

Business Mobile Style

I really find that this works well and has significantly reduced my stress level. I am not trying to juggle so much and stay more focused. I find I enjoy my day more and I feel more productive.

Tip 5: Have Business Hours and Communicate These Clearly to Manage Expectations (if you can afford to)

I can rarely turn of my Smartphone. The reason is, my ability to earn money depends on constant Internet connectivity. I run a mobile media business (http://smartairmedia.com) and I am expected to be constantly connected. As you can imagine this can be difficult in movie theatres, meetings, personal time, and customer lunches.

Sometimes you just can't turn your Smartphone off. I understand that. But sometimes you can and need to. I recommend taking a business hour approach to managing your customer and business relationships. People will expect you to be on your mobile device 24/7 if you set that expectation. People will assume things based on your Smartphone communication behaviour. It is okay to be clear with everyone about your typical Smartphone pattern of behaviour. Here is an example of how you can set this expectation in an email communication:

Thanks Mike for your information.

I would like to follow up soon to solidify the contract details. I will be online late this evening between 8pm and 11 pm if there are any urgent issues. My typical business hours are 10am to 6pm during the week, that is when I return messages within the hour, whenever possible.

Thank you or the fast response and I hope we can resolve any business issues tomorrow during business hours, so I can give the issue the full attention it deserves.

I am not suggesting you say something like this every time. It is good to say once in one initial communication. I would slide in this type of expectation message at times when you are under a deadline, or there may be the expectation that you reply to an issue immediately. Unless you set your expectations, you could end up working all day and all night. Explaining to people that you need to give this the attention it deserves, is a great way to frame the issue constructively and positively. I am sure the person sending out the communication will be relieved if you can sort out the issues during business hours. Often people feel pressured to reply immediately if they feel you expect this turn around time. Someone has to set the expectation clearly and usually means you have a happier and healthier business relationship moving forward.