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When it is and isn’t okay to be on your smartphone: The conclusive guide

An image from a series about modern “smartphone addiction” by the photographer Babycakes Romero. (Babycakes Romero)

Etiquette, by definition, is a form of consensus: not a static code of conduct, necessarily, but a set of norms we all agree on at a given moment. We change, the moment changes — the agreement evolves, too.

And it’s evolving really dramatically right now, according to new findings from Pew.

The paper, which surveyed more than 3,200 American adults, found that the vast majority of us own cellphones and are rarely parted from them. (That’s not exactly news.) But it also documented striking new patterns in how and where we use our phones, particularly in places where, even two or three years ago, whipping out a cellphone would be considered rude.

Nearly 80 percent of all Americans, for instance, think it’s okay to blunder down the sidewalk with your eyes trained on your phone. And a majority of young people say they post pictures, send tweets and surf the Web in front of other people.

If etiquette’s a majority consensus on acceptable behavior, and this is what the majority thinks and does, then the rules on using your phone in public have permanently changed (…for better or worse). What’s more, they’re likely to continue changing in the future: Pew found, predictably, that young people are “generally more permissive than their elders about cellphone use.”

[What your smartphone addiction actually looks like]

With that in mind, we combed through Pew’s report looking for behaviors and habits that more than half of all American adults either say that they find acceptable, or that they do themselves. This is the new normal, so to speak — our emerging consensus on when and where to use phones in public. Don’t gripe to us about it: You made this mess.

Do: Use your phone in any ambient public space of your choosing, even if you risk running into someone. Just about everyone, of every age, agreed it was all right to browse your phone while walking down the street, waiting in line, or riding public transit.

Don’t: Use your phone during meetings, movies, church services, or other places where you’re expected to be attentive to someone else. Etiquette sticklers rejoice: This is one area where public sentiment doesn’t appear to have changed at all. Nine in 10 people says it’s unacceptable to use a phone in these places.

[PSA: Turn off your phone unless you want your family to hate you]

Do: Send messages in front of family or friends, provided they are quick and/or important. Even though most adults think whipping a phone out at a social gathering tends to hurt the dynamic — and even though science firmly supports that — most people do use their phones in front of other people. They just use them under specific circumstances: More people will read a text than will send one, for instance, presumably because reading a text is faster and less disruptive. Half of all people will get on their phones if it’s important, though: 52 percent have pulled out their phone in a recent social situation to “catch up on tasks [they] need to accomplish.”

Don’t: Use your phone at meals, whether with family or at a restaurant. Most adults think it’s rude to use your phone during meals, particularly family dinners. That could change, though, given that half of all 18 to 29-year-olds think it’s cool to text at restaurants. Ugh.

[Why you should really, seriously, permanently stop using your phone at restaurants.]

Do: Get your phone out to take photos and videos, regardless of where you are. Everybody accepts that phones are the new cameras. Almost 60 percent of respondents say they recently took a cellphone photo or video during a social outing; young people go even further, posting that stuff to social media while they’re still with the group.

Do: Take calls in front of other people. Fifty-two percent of phone-owners say they do.

Don’t: Use your phone as a shield to avoid IRL people or conversations. Very, very few people admit to using their phone as a form of avoidance, which is probably a sign of how anathema the practice still is: only 10 percent of adults say they’ve gone on their phones to avoid a conversation, and 16 percent because they’re bored of the group they’re with. Fascinatingly, however, the phone-as-shield tactic is more common among young women — perhaps because they’re the demographic that receives the most unwanted attention.

[Do you really need your phone to remind you to say happy anniversary to your wife?]

Do: Get on your phone in front of family or friends to look up important, relevant information. You know the type that qualifies: directions, quick “are you here?” texts, Google searches needed to settle bets. Most phone-owners have done these things in social settings recently, and most reasonable people would agree they don’t kill the vibe too horribly.

Don’t: Aimlessly browse the Web or check your phone for notifications in front of someone else. Relatively few people check apps or push notifications without any specific reason, or browse their phone in front of other people “just for something to do.” (Alas, a lot of young people do browse for the heck of it, so — that could be changing, too.)

Much of this should be common sense, of course. (In theory, at least, most etiquette should be.) The bottom line is that our understanding of mobile phones is changing: Where we once saw them as tools in solitary endeavors — highly personal, self-directed, isolating screens — we now understand that they can also be used pro-socially. The rule here, as in all social endeavors, is to use them considerately.

None of this will comfort the old-schoolers in the crowd, of course. What about the days when people looked at each other while they talked?, they ask. What happened to basic manners?

To this, I can only point out that “manners” have always changed in response to new technologies, more or less since “manners” became a conscious, codified thing. Consider the lowly fork, widely viewed as scandalous when it was introduced to Europe in the 11th century. Before the fork, it was considered the height of rudeness not to eat from a communal plate with your bare hands; over time, the fork’s invention would rewrite that script, giving us place settings, dinner parties, Victorian table manners.

Etiquette changes — it’s a fact of life, and it’s not inherently good or bad. In all likelihood, our cyborg descendants will look back on us and laugh.