I’m filing this firmly under “just a thought, and I might be wrong” but here goes:
Running back to the car after the school drop one morning recently, I fished in my pocket for my keys and came out with a piece of paper instead. Still running, and trying to see what the piece of paper was, I walked smack into a huge, wet tree branch. One of those huge yet somehow invisible branches. And then I managed to get tangled up in it for what seemed like ten minutes and felt like something out of the Narnia Chronicles. Finally I freed myself, and carried on walking, still looking at the piece of paper. It wasn’t important – an old receipt – but at that point I needed to regain some dignity. “Well at least I wasn’t looking at my phone,” I thought. Because as it stood, I was just a woman who got caught in a tree branch – I looked foolish, but no big deal. If I was engrossed in my phone and became tangled in a tree branch, that’s a whole new level of shame. That’s the stuff that Gifs are made of – perfect fodder for blog posts and articles decrying the loss of social interaction because of the dreaded smart-phone. But the paper saved my dignity – at least in my imagination.
It’s a bit like the playground. I often think, as I push my child on the swing, while eyeing up a bench and wondering if I can get ten minutes on my phone while he plays, that it would be different if I wanted to read a book. In any given playground, there are parents and minders who actively interact with their kids and don’t go near their phones, while there are others who use the time while kids are happily playing to check in online, though sometimes with a tinge of guilt (just me?) I wonder if I sat on a bench to read a book, instead of looking at my phone, would I feel less guilty? I suspect I would. It’s a different picture, it sends out a different message.
Smart-phone etiquette is a new topic for all of us – we’re still figuring it out. What’s acceptable and what’s not? Everyone on the bus with heads down looking at phones? Everyone in the restaurant looking at phones? Families around the dinner table? Employees in the office? Parents supervising homework? Couples on a date? Couples sitting on the couch at night?
Maybe the answer is to substitute paper and see what happens – instead of phones, imagine people in any given situation are reading books or newspapers.
So back to the bus – yes, I think people have been reading books and newspapers on buses and trains for as long as there have been buses and trains. Looking at phones is just the new version of the same thing. For anyone worried about the future of the entire world because of smart phones, I get why it’s disheartening to see a bus load of people with heads down, but when you substitute newspapers and books, you see that it’s nothing new and probably not something to worry about.
What about the restaurant? That’s different I think. Five people sharing a meal in a restaurant, but all reading books and glancing up only occasionally to speak to one another – unless it’s that book cafe that Ellen DeGeneres used to run in her TV show, it’s a little strange. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur and perhaps it will change when my kids are teens and I’m just grateful that they’ll go anywhere publicly with me, but I think restaurants are for eating and talking. Ditto the dinner table.
At work, I guess picking up a phone is very like picking up a paper – if you’re a mid-level employee, you do it when the boss isn’t looking, and if you’re more senior, you do it whenever you want and nobody questions it. Hiding in the bathroom optional on both counts.
Supervising homework – call me a hypocrite, but I’m OK with this one. If I substitute a newspaper for my phone, my conscience isn’t terribly jarred at the idea of picking up the paper for a glance every now and then while the kids are working away on their maths. I’m there when they need me; I’m getting dinner, and I’m having a look to see what’s going on in the world – on or offline.
Couples on a date – I think this is a bit like the restaurant one. It would be odd to see a couple on a date both reading books or newspapers, unless it’s Sunday morning brunch. So if one person checks a phone/ paper while the other is in the bathroom, that seems fine, but other than that, not so much?
Moving on from the new young couple out getting to know each other in a pub, to the ancient couple at home on the couch while the kids are asleep upstairs (me and my husband). People often bemoan the fact that we’re all on devices when we sit down at night now – we’re not just watching TV, we’re on iPads and smart-phones too, more distracted and fragmented than ever. But if I imagine a book in this picture, it doesn’t alter the scene. I speak for myself here, but the advent of the internet hasn’t changed things much in my house – for the “good” TV shows, we put down our devices and watch together, whereas during the “less good” shows, we’re online, we’re chatting, we’re reading. Sometimes even actual books.
And there will always be times when it’s urgent to pick up a phone regardless of the setting – a work email that can’t be ignored, or a phone-call from your other-half, asking you to pick up milk. But that’s mostly when phones are functioning as phones – two-way interactive devices that facilitate communication. The etiquette question is more about the other uses – reading Facebook, scrolling Twitter, doing whatever it is people do on Snapchat and chatting on WhatsApp. The not urgent stuff – the newspaper you can put down, because it will still be there later, or when you’re hiding in the loo.