The New Rules of (Cellphone) Engagement

A man talks on his cellphone in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Zoran Milich/Reuters

Emily Post, synonymous with etiquette in North America, taught that "manners are like primary colors; there are certain rules and once you have these you merely mix, i.e., adapt, them to meet changing situations." But what happens if a paradigm-shifting item—the cellphone—is thrown into the mix and there are no Posts to tell us how to behave?

A Pew Research Center study, published Wednesday, asked 3,217 U.S. adults between May 30, 2014, and June 30, 2014, about their use of and attitudes toward cellphones. Their answers shed light on the new norms Americans are expected to navigate now that these pocket computers are pervasive (3,042, or 92 percent of those polled, had a cellphone).

According to the study, 77 percent of all adults think it is "generally OK" for people to use cellphones while walking down the street. Similarly, 75 percent believe it is acceptable for people to use their phones on public transit and while waiting in line (74 percent).

When it comes to more intimate gatherings, however, attitudes shift. Just 38 percent think it is appropriate to use a mobile device in a restaurant, and 12 percent says it's OK at a family dinner. Only 5 percent believe mobile phone use is permissible during a meeting, another 5 percent are comfortable with use in a movie theater, and just 4 percent say it's fine at a place of worship.

While 82 percent of those polled agree that cellphone use in intimate gatherings frequently or occasionally hurts conversation, 89 percent reported that they used their phone during their most recent get-together. Sixty-one percent of those that took out their device did so to read a message, such as a text or email, while 58 percent took a photograph or video. Fifty-two percent pulled out their mobile phones to send a text or email, and another 52 percent to answer a call. Less common was turning to their phone to check if they had received any alerts (34 percent), to place a call (33 percent), use an app (29 percent) or to search or browse the Web (25 percent).

Though a phone is often used as part of the interaction—posting about the gathering on social media or sending a message to a missing friend the group knows—16 percent resorted to their phone because they were no longer interested in what the group was doing. Another 10 percent used their phone to purposefully avoid participating in a group discussion.

"Those ages 18 to 29 stand out from their elders on virtually every aspect of how mobile activities fit into their social lives, how they act with their phones and their views about the appropriateness of using phones in public and social settings," the study notes. "Younger adults are more engaged with their devices and permissive in their attitudes about when it is OK to use a mobile phone."

Among this age group, for instance, 76 percent reported that they "at least occasionally" used their phone in public for no particular reason, as "just for something to do." That compares with 63 percent of cell owners between 30 and 49, 34 percent of those between 50 and 64, and 16 percent 65 and older.

The rules of (cellphone) engagement are rapidly changing. Just last month, Fusion senior editor Kashmir Hill made the case that a phone should never make noise in public.