Smartphone Etiquette

photo by photomorphic pte. ltd.

On a typical post-work weekday, I climb on a treadmill at the gym, slip in my iPod earbuds, and start to run. The peace I’m looking for, though, eludes me. There’s a woman on a nearby exercise bike chatting on her phone, and her conversation quickly turns into a very loud, public breakup—throughout which she pedals enthusiastically with no hint of shame.

I crank up my speed—and my music’s volume—and sprint faster, though all I really want is to run away. I was raised in a household in which we asked to be excused from the dinner table and sent handwritten thank-you notes for every gift we received. Forgetting to say “please” meant you didn’t get what you’d requested. But even these rigorous etiquette lessons hadn’t prepared me to gracefully handle the broadcast of a not-so-private conversation in a space with no escape.

It’s almost as though smartphones themselves are vessels for bad manners, which transfer to us through log-in screens and render us unconscious of our surroundings. Actress Patti LuPone was recently forced to descend the stage during a performance at Lincoln Center to snatch a cellphone from a woman who had been texting throughout the show—oblivious to the fact that she was distracting not only the actors, but the entire audience.

Check out any group of millennials, and they’re more likely to be hunched over their phones—texting, tweeting, Facebooking—than talking to one another (an official Emily Post no-no). Brunch with friends grows cold as diners artfully arrange Belgian waffles and eggs Benedict before snapping the perfect Instagram.

I witnessed a friend ask to have his latté remade when it didn’t arrive with a perfect foam-etched leaf on top, fearing that his social-media followers would be disappointed—a move that made me want to hide behind the espresso machine. Then there was the date who placed his phone on the table and left it there during our entire dinner, a nonverbal gesture indicating whatever I had to say was far less important than ensuring he hadn’t been knocked off his Candy Crush pedestal. (The text message he sent me later went unanswered, but I expect he was more upset about losing me as a Twitter follower.)

I, too, have been guilty of dashing off a text seconds before a movie starts, or repeatedly checking my phone during meetings when I’m expecting an important e-mail. But who gets to say what’s important, when one person’s status update is another’s burning emergency?

Am I a traitor to my own generation if I’m trying to engage in one-on-one conversations instead of amusing dozens of people with a clever 140-character message? Maybe texting my sister to make plans for next week really is as important as listening to a friend discuss her latest work woes over lunch—and if I can do both at once, why not? (Of course, ask me later what’s wrong in my friend’s cubicle or what time I’m supposed to meet my sister, and I’ll draw a blank on both.)

I’ll never have the nerve to do something so brazen as LuPone, but if you’ll pledge to be a more considerate cellphone user, let me know. I might even mail you one of those handwritten thank-you notes.