Staring At Your Cellphone Is Actually Good Manners - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Staring At Your Cellphone Is Actually Good Manners

Staring At Your Cellphone Is Actually Good Manners

By Barbara Fletcher


Because that device glued to someone’s face might just be teaching them how to manner up.

By Barbara Fletcher

Anyone in their late 30s, or older, tends to judge millennials for tapping away on their cellphones, often labeling the entire generation as “rude.” But several etiquette gurus have a counterargument: Young people do care about building relationships and getting advice on navigating their way through different life stages — more than their elders may realize. They’re just finding help in different ways from baby boomers and Gen Xers.

To meet this need, old-school etiquette advisers have had to undergo a digital reboot. While advice was once doled out via newspapers and books, some columnists are now sharing their words of wisdom via social media in live chats, YouTube videos, podcasts and Twitter feeds — i.e., the very things keeping young folks glued to their screens. Today, more than 40 percent of the nearly 3,600 Twitter followers of Steven Petrow — aka Mister Manners, an advice columnist for The New York Times — are between the ages of 18 and 34.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center notes that more people between the ages of 30 and 49, compared with those between 18 and 29, said it was generally OK to use a cellphone when walking down the street. In fact, Pew has found that Americans of all ages — including millennials — generally trend in the same direction about when it is acceptable or not to use cellphones in public settings. 

But it’s also true that nearly a third of this generation finds it acceptable to use a cellphone during a family meal, at church, in the classroom or during a business meeting. And more experts say they’re fielding questions arising from those awkward social moments when phones compete for everyone’s attention. Peter Post, an etiquette expert and managing director of the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute (yep, named after his famous great-grandmother), says every generation has their preferred way to communicate. Baby boomers embraced the office phone, while their elders conducted meetings in person. Then there are the Gen Xers, who latched onto email, expecting instant replies.

For millennials, it’s all about social media or texting. Post’s advice for non-millennials: Instead of getting frustrated by new modes of communication, “check in and verbalize [your] expectations. It’s more respectful to learn what is most likely to get a fast or detailed response.” Circumstances matter, of course. So we shouldn’t, say, judge the kid walking down the street who’s absorbed in his gadgets if he’s alone. “But if you’re having lunch with someone, don’t pull out your phone,” Post warns. The proper etiquette is to explain your situation in advance. If you’re expecting an important call, just say so — and take the call outside, after excusing yourself. Sincerity can go a long way. “That is the heart and soul of etiquette for any situation,” says Post. 

But if acting thoughtfully with good manners is supposed to reduce unintended rudeness, Petrow, who’s also the best-selling author of The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette, warns that the speed and complexity of texting, tweeting and posting for the “always on” generation increases everyone’s chance to make a faux pas. “That’s a human issue,” says Petrow, “not a generational attribute.”

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