Social Etiquette and the Smartphone

By on February 17, 2012

The Unwritten Social Contract

You don’t have to be a tech aficionado to have found yourself in a conversation about phones getting smaller and being everywhere.  A decade ago, the laptop and cell phone was known as a portable convenience and connectivity; now, everyone’s getting an iPhone, which offers more practical apps than we knew we needed, all in the size of a pocketbook.

Just a generation ago, technology wasn’t moving near this fast. Today, the concepts you imagine upon hearing about a newly developing tech could soon after be experienced commercially, well within your lifetime.

Some would say that technology may be moving progressively faster than we are capable of adjusting to.  Of those, there are the ones that argue that these gadgets, while bringing social enhancements, also add negative social quirks.  People are paying more attention to their status updates than walking, or trying to send an email while driving; instead of having a hard conversation over dinner, people are taking an escape route by doing it via text.  While technology provides more venues for our social connectivity in quantity, some may find it may perhaps be affecting the quality.


“Excuse me!”  “That’s quite alright, I know where you’re coming from”

Interesting times to be looking at how technology has had a hand in our progress, socially-speaking. With the rate technology will continue to increase, we’ll be hit with more significant advancements to add to our social framework as time continues.  Getting past the blockbuster movie idea of technology = doomsday disaster, something needs to be said about how technology really does effect change in our daily lives.  In the social scheme of things, are we benefitting from the addition of social media tools, or suffering a lack of quality because of it?

The Choice is Yours: What’s Used

There are a number of people – friends, for example – that figure ‘a phone is a phone’.   As long as it makes and takes calls, sends and receives texts, they’re good.

Past that, there are those that use them to listen to their favourite tracks.  Or browse through emails.  Take a photo.  Or find directions to a new experience in Afghani cuisine.

It’s the obvious choice for communication, but it wasn’t always the ‘obvious’ choice to combine it with a GPS tracker, a digital camera, portable audio player and web browsing; fifteen years ago, stuff like that was only seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show imagining a distant 300+ years in our future.

It did take some time for the smartphone to develop the widespread use it has today, though, and how far we get in to them depends on our personal choice at this point.  For instance, when the mobile phone became the hot thing to have late in the 90s, while it made it easier to get in touch with someone, there was that question of etiquette regarding when it was impolite to talk on your phone, and in some social circles still is.  Some pick up on it naturally, while others are completely oblivious (remember that date that kept taking phone calls instead of enjoying dinner?).


She saw you and went on her phone, bud.  Probably not interested!

Smart-phones can go even further, adding connectivity via email or social media apps for facebook or twitter.   All greater options to communicate, but could also withdraw the user from the social setting they are physically in.

Smartphones are a case of function and form creating demand: the average user wasn’t demanding all these functions on his cell phone, but once there it was recognized as something useful.  As such, instead of just being an option to talk on the phone instead of watching your nephew’s game, they also provide the option to catch up on what old friends are doing rather than watch the symphony your girlfriend has you attending, or organize your playlist instead of noticing that you’re about to bump into someone while walking through the soup aisle.

Which brings the question of adaptation to us: with all the things a phone can do, has your use of it evolved to include your camera and mp3 player?  Maybe your our personal organizer and morning newspaper?

How much or how little do you care to use your phone? More importantly: when are you using it, and when do you put it away?  Do you find yourself more involved in your phone than you do in the wedding you’re attending right now, perhaps?


Personal Style: How we use it

As phones keep updating themselves, the amount of choices for models that simply talk and text are dwindling:  new options vying for our attention, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S II or the much-anticipated announcement of the iPhone 5, give access to tools that add to our daily routine in ways we’ve been wanting – or rather, as much as we’d like them to.

So are we going to see literally every person with their head in an iPhone cloud within the next few years?  Perhaps nothing so drastic. (I mean, you might not see that for at least the next ten.)  If anything, we may find people getting distracted by their phones more often, and see more of that sort of thing being a commonplace reference in our movies and video games.

But it’s not that having this technology being more common will – as Kanye may put it – give us more people to ‘have a toast for’. More than anything else, the whole exercise could serve as one of the best giveaway ‘tells’ for our own personal moods or anxieties, just as they are already.

Consider a term that may be familiar: Displacement Activity.  Popularly, it’s known as “something you do to avoid an unpleasant situation.” That seemingly ignorant date, of course, while truthfully disinterested, was taking calls as an indirect way to withdraw; while it’s not the most polite way to do so, it is a signal that they aren’t interested.  (On the other side of that table, you know you’ve planned that escape route before.)

In biology, Displacement Activity has slightly different definition: “something a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.”  Smartphones give us the option to do more, but does it sometimes tempt us with the option of trying to do too much?  Are they an excuse for some to keep up a level of anxiety rather than figure out ways to better manage time?

For example:  “I should be focusing on the road, but that text really bothered me – I have to reply”; “Time’s closing in on that deadline – I can shoot an email while I’m on my way to do the groceries.”  For those people, are smartphones a cure for the ‘symptom’ and not ‘the disease’?

Steaks, check.  Tomato paste, check.  Text Will back with ‘lol’; set alarm for 12:00 tomorrow.

The phone acts as a ‘tell’ between you and the ‘unpleasantness’.  And while it’s an outlet for what makes you uncomfortable, it also gives more capacity to be productive in solving it.  But being on it all the time creates that expectation: “I know that he read what I sent; he has his phone on him all the time.”  Anxiety builds, and from here you may be getting the picture (hint: it looks like a loop).

Looked at another way, when both definitions are taken into account, the perception of a smartphone’s ‘intrusion’ into the quality of our interaction has as much to do with us as individuals as it does with the gadget itself.  It’s as much as an outlet for anxiety as it is also a notification that, maybe, you’re not as attentive (or interesting, depending on which end you’re getting) as you thought you were.  And while it’s much more functional, it could – bottom line – be serving the same purpose as tapping your fingers on the desk, or smoking a cigarette.



Tech-heads in the field continue to develop technologies that could make connectivity even smaller, allowing for even more ease and convenience.  At Georgia Tech for example, a project team has been developing a ‘wearable motherboard’, paving the way for a new term that you may get accustomed to soon: ‘smart clothing’.  Closer still to consumer markets, the Samsung I8520, released in Asia last year, includes an on-board projector to display items on a nearby surface.

Imagine clothing that can monitor your heart rate, connect to the internet, and project your search results on the wall with a wave of your hand.  And take calls.  Imagine it being commonplace, on clothing ranging from choices at Wal-Mart to designer labels like Louis Vitton.

Notice that with smart clothing, that barrier that served as the phone disappears completely.  Here, the emperor has only his clothes to speak of – and speak through, technically.  The possibilities for its social impact include those we haven’t even thought up yet.



A floating virtual interface – the phone of the future?

With new technology comes the social etiquette that develops around it.  How fast this we assimilate this technology commercially will determine the how rough the learning curve will be in how we adapt and identify what’s kosher versus what’s faux-pas in how we socialize with it.  But if we’re smarter in how we prepare and conduct ourselves, such useful tools may not be perceived as an intrusion at all.

Keep that in mind before you ask to use the iStethescope on a buddy you’ve just met (read: awkward).



Consider the rate at which technology progressed leading into this.  Back in the 1980s, Motorola came out with the DynaTAC 8000X, a commercial cell-phone option 7 years in the making.  (You might remember what it looks like: it’s like the one they used in John Woo’s 1986 Heroic Bloodshed flick A Better Tomorrow.)  It would take about 20 more years before the average person was thinking of signing with Telus or Fido.





About Jonathan

A contributor to the ēgō Magazine movement, with one goal in mind to bring insight to aspiring minds.

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