Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do the GOOD 30-Day Challenge, a monthly attempt to live better. This month's challenge: Unplug at 8.
The rise of the smartphone has strengthened our connections to people around the world—and complicated our relationships with the humans sitting right in front of us. Now that there's a mobile device in every back pocket, how do we decide when to investigate a new text or keep it in our pants? How do we graciously navigate drunken debates when every fact is at our fingertips? Are we expected to excuse ourselves from the table and tweet from the privacy of a bathroom stall? And do these rules slide based on the birthdate of the person wielding the Qwerty keyboard?
To find out, we asked five etiquette experts—ranging from their mid-20s to their early 70s—to weigh in on the correct ways to connect in the digital age: Katie Heaney, 24, of The Hairpin's Reading Between the Texts; Robin Abrahams, 44, of The Boston Globe's Miss Conduct; Emily Yoffe, 55, of Slate's Dear Prudence; Peter Post, 61, of The Emily Post Institute; and Margo Howard, 71, of Dear Margo.
You’re at dinner with an old friend. May you set your smartphone on the table?
Heaney, age 24: Unless you’re expecting a call from the president or something, then no. Phones should be put away in restaurants and bars, but I think with a good friend it’s OK to pull it out to check it once in a while.
Abrahams, age 44: Yes, but explain why: "I parked at a meter and need to keep an eye on the time" or "I've got a new babysitter tonight, I want to make sure she can reach me," and then do make sure it's all right with your friend. And don't use it for any other reason (if you're on call for the babysitter, that doesn't mean you can take a call from your spouse).
Yoffe, age 55: Why would you set your phone on the table? To implicitly announce, "Let's acknowledge you're a bore and anything that comes through my phone is going to be more interesting than what you have to say"?
Post, age 61: No, it doesn't belong on the table. It says, "I'm expecting something more important than you." It sends a bad message.
Howard, age 71: Only if there is something going on that you might have to deal with, should it come up. For example, the other night I kept my phone out waiting for a text from my son in London saying that his son had been born. I told the couple we were dining with why the phone was out and the message did come in during the meal, and we all drank a toast. Doctors, of course, must keep theirs on, though perhaps in a pocket and on vibrate. In other words, if something is on the fire, it is OK, but just to take whatever call comes in is rude.
You're walking down the sidewalk. Is it ever appropriate to simultaneously scroll through your Twitter feed?
Heaney: Are you around lots of people/pointy objects/canyons? Then no. Otherwise, yes. To me this is all about: Can you multitask or can you not?
Abrahams: No. This leads to dawdling and bumping into things.
Yoffe: It's a good idea if you enjoy a) stepping into traffic, or b) falling down open manholes. One of Lyndon Johnson's favorite putdowns was, "He can't walk and fart at the same time." But basically no one can walk and Twitter at the same time.
Post: As long as it doesn't cause you to lose track of where you are, or make you step into the street or bump into people, doing that on the street is fine. It only becomes a problem when you're walking with someone else and are paying more attention to a machine than you are another person.
Howard: I am not in favor of walking and trying to read anything. With young people, I notice that they cross streets, oblivious to traffic, either talking or reading. If someone wants to read or talk, I would suggest stopping and leaning, if they must, against a building.
You’ve joined your significant other on the couch to watch the latest Breaking Bad. As the episode plays, may you play Words With Friends with your college roommate?
Heaney: I don’t know why this one bugs me the most, but I’d say “never in a million years.” How many screens do you need in front of your face? I’m not explaining what just happened to you over the commercial breaks. Watch it yourself.
Abrahams: As long as you aren't that irritating person who is always looking down when something important happens, and then pipes up with "What did I miss?!" two seconds later. However, as long as you aren't ordering a hit on a competitor, sexting your boss, or arranging a meth deal, you are distinctly better relationship material than anyone on Breaking Bad. So perhaps you can cut yourself some slack.
Yoffe: You can do that if you make clear, "I’m here physically to keep you company, but mentally I'm elsewhere." If you're both fine with that, fine. If your significant other is expecting you to have a mutual experience, no, it's not fine.
Post: If you want to keep that significant other for much longer, you have to put the phone away. Focus on the person you're with. If I were with my significant other, and they were on a date with me while using their phone to play a game with someone else, I'd say "goodnight" . . . Then again, last night I was sitting on the couch watching a show, and my wife was sitting next to me reading her Kindle. But she didn't really care about the show, and I wanted to watch it, so I think it's fine to be in the same room doing two different things. At least she was sitting with me, which was nice.
You’re arguing with a friend. She tells you that Maya Rudolph is married to David O. Russell. You’re sure she’s hitched to Paul Thomas Anderson. Should you pull out the smartphone to settle this once and for all?
Heaney: Sure. Instant answers to trivia debates are probably one of the main perks of smartphones. I’ll probably be annoyed about it if I end up being wrong, though.
Abrahams: Yes! That is an excellent and very appropriate use of a smartphone.
Yoffe: Yes—that's a good social use of the smartphone.
Post: I do it all the time. It's a great way to settle the situation. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong, but Google is wonderful.
Howard: Yes, this happens all the time, and actually is a great resource that was previously unavailable. Also, this is a group activity, if you will, having to do with a conversation in which, presumably, everyone present is involved.
Your smartphone keypad navigation produces emails marked with erratic capitalization and, on occasion, inscrutable auto-correct. Is a standard “typos by iPhone” signature enough to excuse the slights?
Heaney: Not if it’s being used for work emails, but otherwise I think it’s kind of funny. One time I got a text from a friend that said, “Pierre, are you at eat hacks?” She was trying to ask if I was at this bar called Fat Jack’s. Autocorrect can be a wonderful thing.
Abrahams: For informal situations, yes. When communicating with a client, boss, or similar Person Who Must Be Impressed, take the time to correct a text before you send it.
Post: I think it shows a certain lack of awareness if you're not watching what you're writing. Now that we have these tools, we tend to use them at the speed they allow us to, and that can be a real problem. Take a little more time to quickly scan what you're saying.
Howard: Yes, and in fact I, and many people, put a message on the bottom which is a little more original than “Sent from my Blackberry.”
Your smartphone has enabled you to display hundreds photos of your children, pets, and honeymoons to anyone who will listen. Under what circumstances may you employ this power?
Heaney: Literally never. I mean, I think those pictures are what you’re supposed to develop and put in real-life photo albums so that when you have guests over, you can force them to look at them then. That way you’re reserving them for people who know you and like you enough to come into your home and look at three trillion pictures of a baby in a bathtub.
Abrahams: When you are lonely and anxious in a doctor's waiting room or airport terminal, and wish to remind yourself that happier days have been and will come again, and that you are loved. If you wish those statements to remain true, you will refrain from molesting others with the photographic record of your life.
Yoffe: If someone says, "I would like to look at hundreds of photos of your kids and pets." Actually, it's fine if people say, "How's Sophie?" and you pull out the phone and show about, oh, three pictures of your daughter. Of if you say, "I got a puppy! Want to see a picture of her?" Keep the photo display judicious.
Post: Oh man, only to someone who is really interested. It's like pulling out photo albums in the old days: "You want to show me all your photos of your trip to Tuscany, really?" It's a matter of being really cognizant of that fact that most people don't want to look at all those pictures. Don't just force yourself on a person.
Howard: Only if asked. And I actually think offering to show a bunch of pictures borders on making people uncomfortable.
Heaney: I would almost definitely read it and reply. That’s probably bad because they’re my colleagues, but it’s also happy hour. I think that’s a casual enough setting to use your phone occasionally. Then I’d put my phone on vibrate, because everyone’s phones should always just be on vibrate.
Abrahams: With great alacrity, if you want your significant other to remain significant and your drinking hours with colleagues to remain "happy," and not become "morose hour of listening to X blubber about her breakup. "
Yoffe: When there's a natural break in your conversation, excuse yourself and step away from the table and communicate with your significant other.
Post: Normally, you don't respond. You don't look at it. You keep your focus on your colleagues. If you know that there is a potential for an emergency message coming in, you can excuse yourself from the table take care of it out in the lobby. Don't put it right in their faces what you're doing while you're ignoring them ... You don't want to be constantly assessing your phone whenever someone contacts you, saying, "this one I'll answer, this one I won't, this one's more important than you are, this one isn't."
Howard: Because it’s happy hour, a casual gathering, I think reading a text message is fine. And texting would be preferable to taking a call.