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Where are your high-tech manners?

  • Story Highlights
  • One poll finds 8 in 10 annoyed at least occasionally by others' cell phone use
  • PDAs, mp3 players and other personal gadgets also sometimes cause irritation
  • Public spaces are being affected by this, according to one researcher
  • Next Article in Technology »
By Amy Cox
CNN
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(CNN) -- Just because you live in a high-tech world doesn't mean your manners can sink to new lows when using your personal technology, experts say.

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Some common sense while in the public eye can keep you in the good graces of your fellow gadget consumers.

"No doubt there've always been stinkers from the start of time," says Honore Ervin, co-author of "The Etiquette Grrls: Things You Need to Be Told" and "More Things You Need to Be Told."

"But all of these mobile, technological gadgets that are so prevalent now -- somehow [people] just get sucked into their own little world of their cell phones, iPods, wireless computers. They're not existing in a society and realizing that their actions affect anyone else."

A poll last year by Pew Research, The Associated Press and AOL (which, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner) found that 81 percent of the people they surveyed were irritated at least occasionally by loud and annoying cell phones in public places. About one in 10 admitted they were the object of criticism or stares because of their own cell phone use. The poll also revealed about a quarter of respondents felt the need to answer their phone even if it interrupts a meal or a meeting.

And it's not just cell phones. A 2006 ABC News poll found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed had observed someone using a phone or e-mailing and text messaging in midconversation. Another survey of 150 senior business executives revealed that about 86 percent check and reply to e-mails on PDAs such as BlackBerries during meetings, but 31 percent said that it was "never OK" to do so, according to Robert Half Management Resources, a specialized staffing business.

"I don't know if it's intentional or not, but I think [personal technology] is a way that makes it easier for people to be rude," Ervin says. "If you go to a Broadway show and paid $150 a ticket, you don't want someone talking on their cell phone right behind you."

This rudeness has deteriorated public spaces, according to Lew Friedland, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He calls the lack of manners a kind of unconscious rudeness, as many people are not aware of what they're doing or the others around them.

"People act as if they're walking through life in a cone of silence in which only they and the other person on the end of the line can hear them," he says. "They can talk quite loudly, and they can talk about things that people around them don't really want to hear about."

"I'm not anti-technology at all," he says. "But public spaces are important and the quality of the time [you spend there]."

Friedland describes the growing use of personal technology in public spaces as a chain reaction. At first, a few people violate the social norms, but as more and more people violate them, the actions become the new norm.

"That's what we're really starting to see now," he says. "It's not that people are just being rude in public and ignoring others, but that the norms themselves are starting to tip."

Visiting a park recently, Friedland observed a woman pulling her child in a wagon while she talked on her cell phone.

"That's not exactly public rudeness, but it's a good example of how a norm of being in public -- enjoying nature with your child, paying attention to your surroundings -- is deteriorating," he explains. "So it's a good example of how even intimate interactions can be cut off or deteriorate radically under the influence of this always on, always connected society."

Friedland says this is particularly true among younger people, "for whom essentially cell phone use in public is just a part of daily life."

In the Pew study, about 14 percent of people ages 18-29 drew criticism or dirty looks for the way they used their cell phone in public, compared to the 8 percent of respondents of all ages.

If cell phone abuse is an active invasion of other people's space, other personal technology such as mp3 players, texting devices and Wi-Fi represent what Friedland calls an "active withdrawal from public space."

"I was having a conversation last night and they were texting while they were talking to me and I'm sitting there, thinking 'It's fine if you don't want to have this conversation, but choose,' " he says. "Basic norms of politeness say do one or the other."

But again, Friedland says, norms are changing, especially among younger users.

"Texting while talking is not experienced by most people as a sign of disrespect or rudeness. It's just literally normal," he says. "Young people tolerate a much higher rate of this kind of on and off passive sort of digital withdrawal, in which you're in and you're out, quickly jumping in and out of different communication modes and conversations."

But what's the proper etiquette for dealing with cell phone faux pas or people who've shunned you for their BlackBerry?

Ervin is a firm believer in the low-tech "icy glare," a shooting daggers-evil eye combo. But, it has mixed success.

"Half the people say 'Oh, my gosh, I didn't realize.' The other half give you an icy glare right back."

Friedland points to a number of society reactions to combat the bad etiquette. For example, many commuter trains have adopted the idea of "quiet cars," in which cell phones are banned in those areas.

"I see more and more signs of people, particularly in service industries, with signs taped to their registers: Please don't use your cell phones while transacting business with us," he says. "I think it's another example where people in those industries feel like it's a sign of disrespect and it's becoming more common."

While businesses and society institute these measures to combat the high-tech gadget abuse, the bad behavior will probably remain, Friedland says.

"People who do care about preserving those norms are probably feeling it's a losing proposition," he says. "I don't see it being reversed at this point." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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