Put Down the Phone: The New Rules of Digital Etiquette

Last February, the American Red Cross garnered attention on Twitter—and not for charity-related reasons. No, the organization was in the spotlight after an employee accidentally tweeted about “getting slizzerd” on Dogfish Head beer. The employee at fault quickly issued an apology tweet, blaming her “inability to use Hootsuite.” Luckily, the mishap had a happy ending, with the errant tweet inspiring a rash of donations to the organization.

But not all digital hijinks turn out so positively. From inappropriate tweets and Facebook status updates to phone calls taken at the very worst moments, the list of tech-related faux pas is nothing if not lengthy—and it’s growing every day as the digital landscape continues to morph. So how do you know if you’re being polite?

According to Daniel Post Senning, manager of web development and online content at The Emily Post Institute and the great-great-grandson of the eponymous etiquette expert, proper mobile manners can be boiled down to one simple concept. “Whenever you think of good use of a device, it’s a great rule of thumb to think about the human interaction that’s going on,” Senning said. “The most important thing is to think about the people and how they’re affected.”

So with that teched-up twist on the Golden Rule in mind, we present some more in-depth guidelines for ensuring your mobile etiquette is in tip-top shape.

Gadget Use

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that about 13 percent of mobile phone users have faked a call to get out of real-life conversations—but that’s hardly the only digital blunder you can make.

  1. Do Be Aware of Your Surroundings.
    When you’re riding the bus or are in another situation where those around you can’t simply move away, it’s safe to say that it’s not the right time to make a call or turn the sound on while you play Angry Birds.
     
  2. Don’t Make Your Smartphone Secondary to Your Friends.
    If you and a friend are having lunch, conversation should be happening in reality, not in the back-and-forth texts on your phone.
    Of course, there are always exceptions, such as when you get an emergency call from family or work, but the key idea is to be mindful of the way your gadget use affects those who are with you. If you have to take a call when you’re with company, Senning recommends keeping it as short as possible and moving to another room.
     
  3. Do Know When to Leave Your Device Off— Or at Home.
    When we asked Senning whether checking email at your child’s little league game falls under bad digital etiquette, he emphasized that sometimes the decision to use or put away your gadget is not so straightforward.
    “In some ways, that’s a parenting question,” Senning explained. “The device is neither rude or polite. If you’re someone whose device is constantly drawing them away… it’s important that you not only don’t talk on your phone, but you power it down and leave it at home in the morning when you go spend time with your kids.”
    However, Senning added that it might be the ability to be reachable by cell phone that makes it possible to go to that game in the first place.
     
  4. Don’t Text During Dinner.
    Some occasions simply aren’t made for toying with your favorite tech, and social situations such as dining out and parties top the list.
     
  5. Don’t Take Personal Conversations in Public.
    Whether you receive a non-work–related call at the office or in a restaurant, find a private place to talk. This not only shows consideration for others; it protects your privacy as well. “When someone hears half of a phone call, it’s almost impossible to ignore,” Senning explained. “It’s a little bit like a whispered conversation, and in the absence of knowing, oftentimes we default to a negative assumption or impression.”

Social Networking

A 2011 study found that 85 percent of female Facebook users feel that their Facebook friends overshare or brag too much. Make sure you’re not crossing the line.

  1. Don’t Share Anything Remotely Private.
    It may sound obvious, but don’t post photos or status updates that you wouldn’t want the world to read. Thankfully, social networking sites such as Facebook offer increasingly dynamic privacy controls. If there are some friends you don’t want seeing all of your information, consider adding them to a separate friends list with tighter restrictions.
  2. Don’t Think the Rules are Different Online and Off.
    Just because you’re not communicating with friends and followers face to face doesn’t mean you can be less polite or considerate. Meghan Peters, community manager for social media and news site Mashable, puts it this way: “It’s really important to act like you would in person.” Moreover, she refers back to that simplest of etiquette axioms, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all… That’s not to say you shouldn’t share negative opinions, but there’s another person on the other end and they still have feelings.”
  3. Do Engage with Your Followers and Friends.
    Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer), a tech evangelist with more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, stresses the importance of reaching out and responding to followers and friends on social networking sites. “This isn’t TV where you just put signals out and you never have to respond to everybody,” he said. “It’s a two-way medium, and the power in this stuff is being two ways about it.”
  4. Do Know Where to Share What.
    In addition to asking yourself, “Would I care if the whole world sees what I’m about to post?” it’s a good idea to consider how most users interact with the top social networking sites. “Read for a while and see what the default usage pattern is on each [of these sites],” Scoble recommended. “Twitter has a default usage pattern of signaling—in other words, here’s an important piece of news.” Facebook, on the other hand, is generally more personal and photo-driven, as users tend to interact more with friends and family than fans and other acquaintances.
  5. Don’t Feel Obligated to Follow and Friend Everyone.
    You gain a new follower on Twitter, but after a cursory glance at their profile, you’re positive that their tweets aren’t of interest to you. Do you still have to follow them back? Scoble says no. “If you’re following just because somebody follows you, you’re opening yourself up to spammers, you’re going to open yourself up to noise, and you’re going to destroy your inbound feed. You should only follow people you care about.”
    Peters agrees, adding that who you choose to follow or friend will depend on the network. “On Twitter, I tend to follow people who follow me even if I don’t know them, whereas Facebook is a little more private because that’s where I communicate with my personal friends.” She points to Facebook’s recent Subscriptions feature, which lets users follow select updates without having to be your friend on the site, as a good compromise for separating the personal and professional.
  6. Do Remember That the Web Is Not Private.
    “The places that we interact with social media are often some of the private places in our lives, whether it’s at the office, or home, or our car. You can close the door to your office… but the second you turn on your computer, you’re back in the street in your hometown,” Senning cautions.

Video Chat

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 19 percent of adults had tried video calling in 2010, with an even-higher 19 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds admitting to using a video-chat service within the same time period. Knowing when and when not to text or chat on your smartphone may be straightforward enough, but what do you do when video gets added to the mix?

  1. Do Try to Prevent Tech Glitches.
    If you’re scheduled to dial into a meeting via ooVoo, Skype, or another video conferencing service—or even if you’re just slated to catch up with grandma—it’s considerate to check your system for possible technical problems ahead of schedule so any issues are resolved before your conversation partners join the call. This includes making sure your audio works properly.
  2. Don’t Call from An Inappropriate Location.
    In addition to ensuring that you’re not disturbing those around you, consider your physical surroundings and what they communicate about you. For example, if you’re on a business call, make sure that your background looks professional. In other words, signing in for a business call when there’s dirty laundry in the background is a no-no.
  3. Do Make the Experience As Natural As Possible.
    “If it’s at all possible, position your camera near the screen that you’re going to be talking to, so that you’re able to look at the person who you’re speaking to,” Senning recommends. “It can make for a much more seamless experience.”
    If you’re using a notebook with a built-in webcam and repositioning it is not possible, try to make eye contact by adjusting the angle of the lid. Just because you have Tweetdeck open doesn’t mean you should be scanning the latest updates instead of engaging with your conversation partner.

Bottom Line

When it comes to manners and technology, follow the above rules and your instincts. If you’re second-guessing whether you should pull out your phone or send that bawdy tweet, chances are you shouldn’t do it.

When all else fails, remember the Golden Rule and why you’re using those gadgets and social networking services in the first place: to connect with people you care about.

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