These days, connectivity is often seen as the highest virtue and as an extremely desirable quality in a person. Being available and feeling “connected” to your group 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether it’s through the use of electronic organizers, laptops with wireless connections, or cell phones, has become an essential part of many people’s lives. The value we place on connectivity can come with a price, though.
As cell phones become more prolific and ingrained in the public consciousness, less attention is paid to how, when, and where we use these now-common devices. This has a significant cultural cost for everyone who has to listen to unwanted “second-hand” conversations. The result? That our “connectivity” is seen less as a considerate gesture for those who want access to us, and more as an annoyance that can tarnish our reputations and jeopardize our relationships. That said, it’s not likely the cell phone is going to go away any time soon. It’s not the technology itself that creates a problem, it’s people without manners and the thoughtless use of that technology. With a little self-assessment, awareness of your surroundings, and a small bit of energy and effort, we can change our habits and utilize the positive aspects of a connected lifestyle without having to shoulder any of the negative ones.
Considerate Cell Phone Etiquette
First, let’s take a look at some basic rules that govern the polite use of cell phones, whether in personal or professional life. Although almost all of these rules could be boiled down to simple common sense and courtesy, research shows that a massive 68% of cell phone users typically ignore them and yet 95% of those surveyed still consider themselves courteous users. This is an indication of how little self-awareness people have when they need to use the phone or take an incoming call. The research pinpoints precisely why it is now so important to actively observe the following rules and put them into practice.
The first and most obvious rule of cell phone etiquette is to use the “silent” or “vibrate” function on your cell phone whenever you’re in an environment where the ringing would be disruptive.
This could be any number of places, including the theater, church, an art museum, a business meeting, a class, or a crowded elevator. In fact, since your cell phone is almost always on your person when you’re out and about, consider using “vibrate” as the default state to avoid embarrassing mishaps. Let people who phone you understand that you participate in good cell phone etiquette. Explain that you are most often available but that you put your phone on vibrate when you are in public and let the call go to voicemail until you are able to get to a location where you can return the call. When people understand how you use your device they will leave you a message and cut you slack even when they expect you to be instantly available night and day.
Most guides to cell phone etiquette indicate that you should never talk in public places.
However, I think it’s okay to use your cell phone in public as long as you’re considerate of others. I do believe you should never want to carry on an intimate or private conversation over a cell phone, even in places where a cell phone conversation might otherwise be tolerated, such as a train or on the sidewalk. Also, it is unwise and unprofessional to have any corporate or professional business overheard, no matter what conversation you are taking part in. You never know who could make a judgment call on your conversation and potentially do harm to your organization based on your phone call. Last month, in the airport, I overheard three conversations made by a VP of a large Fortune 500 corporation, describing customers (he even mentioned their names!), sales numbers and projections, and problems he was having with a peer.
This may seem silly but, really, there’s no need to yell when using a cell phone.
Even when reception is bad, yelling typically tends to make your message all the more indiscernible and does not enable you to be better heard in any way. All it does is draw hostile attention to yourself. In my dentist’s office, a woman was shouting while talking with her mother. She kept having to repeat herself. One waiting room hostage tapped her on the shoulder and suggested that she lower her voice. The woman snapped back and the gentleman explained that if she lowered her voice, the reception would be better and her mother would be able to hear her better. She tried and it was. She was thrilled with the result of the man’s tip.
Be wary when choosing a ringtone.
In today’s world, there’s a whole market dedicated to providing custom ring tones suited to the user’s individual style or personality. Not all ringtones are appropriate for all environments, though. People will make judgment calls about your choice of ringtone whether you like it or not. Picking a ringtone might be perfectly acceptable for at-home use or a night out with friends, but in the boardroom, a meeting, or in a class, it can make an already unpleasant interruption linger in the minds of those present.
Be considerate of those physically with you.
Whether you’re out with some friends, on a private date, or at a business lunch, interrupting a face-to-face conversation to use the cell phone tells the person you’re with that you consider them less important than whoever is on the other end of the line. It creates tension and can leave a very unfavorable impression. Whenever possible, shut your cell phone down to give the person you are with your undivided attention. Conversely, if this impossible, a quick glance at the caller ID screen on your phone followed by an aside like “Oh, it’s nothing too important, I’ll get in touch with them later”. I don’t know many people who have to answer the phone instantly to whoever calls. Letting the other person know when you have to answer is a polite way to handle this.
Cell Phone Security Considerations
For those who use cell phones to conduct business or talk about important matters, you’re not as secure as you think. Recent studies indicate that even those cell phones which boast the latest in ‘encryption’ technologies are glossing over the fact that, with all cell phones, signals are decrypted at both ends of the line. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to receive the call in the first place. The potential holes in security don’t end there, however.
Although it’s unlikely that a call will be intercepted ‘from the air’ where it’s still protected by your service provider’s encryption, the signals can just as easily be picked up after they’ve reached your phone or the phone of your associate.
There is any number of ways to go about doing this, and the materials needed are becoming increasingly available and less expensive all the time. For this reason, it’s advisable to never discuss sensitive professional matters over a cell phone. Use the phone to arrange a face-to-face meeting or set up a landline conversation rather than compromise the security of sensitive information.
The same goes for emails and text messages.
Intercepting them is no different from intercepting a call placed to a cell phone. Even if they’re not intercepted at the time, traces remain embedded in your phone’s firmware long after you’ve deleted the messages. This means that someone getting access to your physical phone gives them the potential to access all of the e-mails and text messages you’ve ever sent or received, no matter how long ago you deleted them. Again, treat the cell phone’s text message and e-mail capabilities as a useful tool for arranging and coordinating secure meetings, not as a substitute for them.
Don’t get so caught up in all the high-tech ways that an unscrupulous character might violate the integrity of your cell phone calls that you overlook the most obvious method of information theft: good old-fashioned eavesdropping.
Whenever you use your cell phone in a public place, you’re potentially exposing your secrets to everyone around you. Even if they seem to be paying you no attention. The individual sitting behind you on a train, in a restaurant, or even in line at the airport could be there for less than innocent purposes. Industrial espionage through eavesdropping is a centuries-old method for getting the edge on the competition so don’t just chalk the threat up to something that only conspiracy theorists are concerned about. The threat is very real, and it pays to be cautious.
Cell phones can prove to be an invaluable asset to your communication and productivity. They can allow you to arrange spontaneous meetings at a moment’s notice or reliably keep in touch over long distances. These advantages, however, carry some very real risks that must be addressed unless you want to find the integrity of your organization’s sensitive information compromised by improper usage. Ultimately, the responsibility for security is on your shoulders. Use your cell phone, but use it wisely, and make sure your coworkers and peers know to do the same through proper training in cell phone etiquette.
CEO, Indaba Global Coaching, LLC