There’s a right way and a wrong way to use your smartphone when in public. The right way ensures that you don’t infringe on anyone else’s right to be comfortable in the same public space as you and that you conduct yourself in a socially acceptable way. It’s the way an adult should behave.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any classes on proper smartphone etiquette—it’s just a bunch of unspoken rules that we’ve sort of agreed upon as a modern, technological society. Most of us pick up on them as we go through life. The rest of us remain oblivious until we’re told flat out.
If you’re in the latter group, no worries. Here are several smartphone etiquette mistakes to avoid if you care about being mature, polite, and mindful of those around you.
1. Pay Attention When You’re in Motion
Doesn’t matter if you’re walking, driving, riding a bike, or whatever else—keep your eyes on where you’re going, NOT on your phone. You might think you’re a multitasking master, and you might make it through the day just fine 99% of the time, but that 1% can be catastrophic. You might run someone over. You might be the one who’s run over. And even if you “only” bump into someone, it’s downright rude.
2. Don’t Use Speakers in Public
It’s bad enough when someone wants to have a full-blown conversation at full volume in a public space. It’s even worse when that conversation is blaring out on speaker phone for everyone to hear. It’s even worse if you’re playing music out loud. Honest truth? Nobody cares what you’re listening to. Keep it to yourself, wear headphones, and spare the people around you.
3. Don’t Leave Important Messages on Read
On some messaging apps—including iMessage, Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and many others—the other person gets a “read receipt” when you’ve seen their message. Basically, they know you’ve read their message and can expect a reply. The act of reading a message but not sending a reply is known as “leaving them on read.”
It’s one thing if your friend says “LOL” and you don’t respond. It’s another when someone sends you a bid for your item on Facebook Marketplace, or asks for an estimated time of arrival, or shoots you a question on a dating app to keep the conversation going. Leaving someone on read is rude as it implies you’ve lost interest in the conversation OR they aren’t important enough for you to respond to in a timely manner. If you have time to read a message, you have time to type up a response.
4. Don’t Browse Your Phone During Conversation
Whether you’re sitting at the dinner table or chatting away with friends, family, or coworkers, the mature thing to do during face-to-face social interactions is to put your phone away and focus on those who are right in front of you. Sure, if you’re all chummy and just waiting to pass the time, your phone is fair game. Otherwise, keep it in your pocket. This also extends to other face-to-face interactions like ordering coffee at Starbucks or returning items to Target—stay off your phone!
5. Excuse Yourself Before Taking a Call
You’re with someone—or a group of people—and receive a phone call? Sure, go ahead and check who’s calling. If it’s an unrecognized number or appears to be an unimportant call, let it go to voicemail and handle it later. If it looks like an important call, excuse yourself and go take it elsewhere. It protects your privacy and allows the rest of the people there to continue socializing without having to talk over your side conversation. Also, if you’re expecting a call later, let people know so they aren’t surprised when you have to step aside.
6. Use Do Not Disturb at Night and in Theaters
Most iPhones and Android phones these days come with some kind of Do Not Disturb feature that you can toggle on to temporarily hide and silence all incoming calls, messages, and notifications. It keeps your screen from lighting up whenever something happens, which can be super distracting in an environment like a movie theater. It’s also good to use throughout the night, which keeps your phone from interrupting the sleep of anyone else who may be in the same room (e.g. spouse).
7. Don’t Swipe on Someone Else’s Phone
If someone ever hands their phone over to show you a photo, it’s extremely rude to swipe to the next photo without first asking permission. Yes, people should take care to hide their sensitive photos if they’re going to hand their phone over, but it’s still polite to assume they haven’t. Even if you don’t stumble across something explicit (e.g. nudes), their gallery may consist of other personal, private, or even embarrassing moments that they want to keep for themself.
8. Respect “Work Hours” When Contacting Someone
Generally speaking, people are open to dealing with “work matters” between 9am and 5pm. (Workaholics may be more lenient.) For “personal matters,” people may be happy to communicate between 8am and 10pm. Beyond those hours, if you need to contact someone, you should wait ’til the next day—this is especially true if you need to call them, but it’s still true even with non-instant modes of communication like emails. Similarly, don’t expect people to reply outside of those generally-accepted personal hours.
9. Don’t Take Photos of Others in Public
It’s sad to see how many people just don’t have any sense of common courtesy out in public. For example, I’ve seen people take photos of others who are working out at the gym—whether they’re extremely attractive, extremely overweight, extremely incompetent, or whatever else, there’s no situation where it’s polite and acceptable to snap secret pictures of someone without their knowledge. (The legality of this may differ from place to place; I’m not talking about legality, though.)
10. Take a Photo, Then Live in the Moment
That beautiful landscape? That amazing celebrity or role model? That wonderful group photo with friends and family? Go ahead and take a photo with them. Take several photos if you want to. But don’t miss the magic of the moment by chasing after picture after picture after picture. Snap a few keepsake images for posterity, then enjoy the moment on a personal level. Generally speaking, it’s more meaningful to experience something than it is to record it.
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