by Tom Kaneshige

Smartphone Etiquette: Five Unspoken Rules for the Holidays

Oct 26, 2009

Toilet texting. Tweeting in church. What are the do's and don'ts for smartphone users this holiday season? You may be surprised at what most people consider good iPhone and BlackBerry manners, as revealed by a new survey.

This holiday season, jolly old Saint Nick surely has an iPhone app for tracking who has been good and bad. And those of you who breach smartphone etiquette rules may end up on the naughty side of the list.

Given the explosion of mobile Internet use this year, thanks largely to the iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones, Harris Interactive (on behalf of Intel) surveyed 2,625 U.S. adults about what they consider proper smartphone etiquette during the most social time of the year.

To be fair, the survey concludes that smartphone etiquette is evolving quickly, as businesses and lifestyles pressure people to always be connected via mobile devices even during meals, vacations and holidays.

Yet there was some consensus about what constitutes good and bad iPhone and BlackBerry behavior today. Read on, or risk being considered rude:

Rule 1: If you must text, head to the bathroom

If you just have to text someone while you’re attending a holiday party, go ahead and type it while in the bathroom. It’s okay. Really. Unlike religious services (see etiquette rule no. 2), the bathroom doesn’t command the same reverence when it comes to mobile technology, according to Harris Interactive.

Three out of four respondents in this survey said it’s perfectly appropriate to use your smartphone in the bathroom. (Of course, the longstanding Mars vs. Venus debate on what is appropriate in the bathroom, whether it’s reading the newspaper or reading a text message, may shape personal opinions here.) And you’d certainly be wise to keep iPhone activity in the bathroom to silent toilet texting.

Rule 2: Thou must not use the iPhone during religious events

For many people, the holiday season is a time to recharge the spiritual batteries with religious events and gatherings. Such events are not the time to tweet.

Not surprisingly, the Harris Interactive survey found that an overwhelming majority of online adults have zero tolerance for people breaching iPhone etiquette at holiday services or even using mobile devices at religious venues. Religion clearly trumps technology.

Yet experts are quick to point out that mobile etiquette is constantly evolving, even in the religious community. Case in point: Father David Rickey of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, founded in 1867, is a self-proclaimed tech geek. He often has a Bluetooth sticking out of his ear, and his mobile phone plan has unlimited texting. Not only is he on Twitter and Facebook, but also, he webcasts his services.

Of course, he doesn’t respond to text messages when he’s in the middle of a service. “When I can feel the ring, I think: I wonder who that is?” he said in a TV news interview, “and it distracts me, so I put [the phone] in the drawer.”

Rule 3: Three’s a crowd on a date

The holiday season is also a time for warm fires, romantic dinners, and first dates. Yet while your iPhone goes everywhere you do, just remember that sometimes three is a crowd. Sixty percent of adult respondents consider using a mobile device while on a date to be inappropriate.

Let’s face it: When you or your date whips out an iPhone and starts texting away, insecure minds think the worst. What is she really texting? Perhaps This guy is so boring. Or maybe She won’t stop talking.

Then there’s the awkward minutes after a text as you wait for the iPhone to ring and your date to bolt for the door. Rest assured the text was the tried and true Call me in five minutes, say it’s an emergency and get me out of here!

Rule 4: Holiday parties are a time for socializing, not social networking

Seven out of 10 respondents think it’s unacceptable to check emails, send text messages and make phone calls while in the company of others, let alone while on a date. And more than half said they would be offended if they were at a holiday party and someone secretly tried to tap the Internet at the table. I’m assuming they would include tweeting and playing Texas Hold ‘Em on the iPhone as inconsiderate, too.

Imagine a holiday event filled with partygoers twittering about everything, from the appetizers to the who’s-with-who gossip. It’s not far-fetched: A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project claims that nearly one in five Internet-savvy Americans use Twitter or some other social networking status update service—more than double the number from the year prior.

Rule 5: Turn off your iPhone before it becomes a turn-off

In a recent Huffington Post story, Carl Honore tells how his friend’s lover decided to read a text message and tap out a reply during an, ahem, intimate moment. His friend, Honore says, was crestfallen. The mood? Ruined.

The truth is that the sound of an incoming text or email is often impossible to ignore. Who sent it? What does it say? Is it important? Critical? What will happen if I don’t look at it? It’s a mystery of the highest order.

Ringtones that identify callers can help solve some of this mystery, much like caller ID has done for the ordinary telephone. Or they can have the opposite effect: a call or voicemail or text from your BFF is just a screen tap away, and surely your BFF is waiting for a quick response.

“In this media-drenched, multitasking, always-on age, many of us have forgotten how to unplug and immerse ourselves completely in the moment,” Honore writes. “We have forgotten how to slow down.”

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for Send him an email at Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.