Personal Finance: Mobile manners require establishing limits on cellphone usage

Everyone’s seen it, heard it – or yes, likely done it. We’re talking about boorish behavior on cellphones.

It could be the obnoxiously loud cellphone chatterer standing next to you in an airport boarding line or at a grocery checkout counter. Or the constant texting, tweeting and Instagramming by your kids – or even the adults – at the dinner table. Or the co-worker whose phone annoyingly brrings or burbles in the middle of a business meeting.

“We all know somebody totally tethered to their cellphone. But being too connected ignores people who are right in front of you,” said writer Susannah Snider, who discusses mobile manners in the December issue of Kiplinger’s financial magazine. We caught up with Snider – on her landline – in Washington, D.C. Here’s an excerpt:

Bad cellphone manners certainly aren’t new. What inspired you to cover it now?

It’s one of those topics that resonates with everyone. In the last year or two, it’s become rare to know anyone without a smartphone, so it’s not just calls anymore: it’s social media, Internet, Twitter. They are all interfering with family meals, business meetings, going out with friends.

What’s the worst, most annoying habit?

For me, the toughest one is knowing what’s appropriate at a business meeting. You see a whole range of behaviors: Some keep their cellphone hidden in a pocket. Some put it on vibrate; some let it ring. Some are constantly checking their screen.

If it’s a meeting for work, we recommend that you leave your phone on your desk down the hall. If it’s a meeting across town or while traveling, keep the ringer off and keep the phone in a pocket or purse.

If you’re waiting for a client’s call or expecting a call from your kids and really need to be aware of what’s going on, have it within eyesight. When it lights up or buzzes, you can excuse yourself to take the call. Ahead of time, warn whoever is conducting the meeting that you’re expecting a call and might have to duck out. It shows that you think the meeting is important.

All of this is judgment. Reading the situation, understanding what is going on in that particular setting.

Are certain age groups prone to bad cellphone behavior?

It’s an all-ages issue. But the way that people use their phone changes with your age group. Some are constantly responding to work emails, some to their kids, some to their social media. There are people who don’t use their phone that often, but it’s getting rarer and rarer.

Let’s talk about your specific suggestions, starting with family gatherings.

Every family’s different. You need to decide some ground rules, such as banning cellphones at the dinner table. The family dinner is a classic, when you want to shed distractions, catch up on each other’s day, focus on your spouse, your partner. It’s not a time to be checking work email or a Facebook post or a text from your friends.

For some, it can be very difficult to take some mental timeout. People can be truly addicted to their Twitter, Facebook. It’s about establishing some distance every day. If there’s a period where something is happening at the office and you need to be on-call, let your family know it’s a busy, stressful time and you’ll need to be taking calls.

Cellphone etiquette in the bedroom?

That’s where you set your own ground rules on whether it’s OK to bring the (laptop) into bed or make calls on your phone. You have to have a nighttime haven and not make it into a satellite office. Otherwise, it’s like bringing others into your bedroom. It should be your safe place where you can relax without all the distractions. Every couple can establish what’s OK and what annoys one another. Make it a calming space.

How about socializing with friends?

At social events, everyone likes to snap photos of their entree or drink. A food picture is a staple of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Unless you’re at a business dinner, taking a picture of your food or drink isn’t necessarily rude. But wait to post it until later. Take the picture and put the phone away so you don’t start obsessively checking to see if the photo has been “liked” or commented on. That’s rude.

Make a game of it: Put everyone’s cellphones in the center of the table. The first person to reach for theirs has to pay the bill or the next round of drinks. It’s a good way to get everyone to forget about their phone and focus on the group they’re with. It can be tough. There’s actually an app for the game. I haven’t tried it. (It’s Downside, a free game on iTunes.)

Given our attachment to digital devices, is the problem ever going to get better?

I’m hopeful. As smartphones become more ubiquitous, people are going to give more thought to the dos/don’ts etiquette of using them. I’m optimistic. These are just (suggested) rules ... You’re the best judge of how respectful, how connected you need to be in person to your friends, family and co-workers.