Is Leaving A Voice Mail Rude? And Other Cell Phone Dos & Don'ts

This week at Refinery29 Canada, we’re dialling into one of the most intimate (and infuriating) relationships in our lives: the one we have with our phones.
As the great-great-granddaughter of OG Ms. Manners Emily Post, Lizzie Post comes by her etiquette expert credentials honestly. One thing her granny never had to deal with? Smartphones, which have changed the way we behave (and misbehave). Here, the author, public speaker and host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast weighs in the dos and don’ts of phone decorum: when and where it’s not okay to take a selfie, why voicemail is not played out, and when it’s okay to have your phone on the table (hint: if you have to ask, put it away).
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I was recently at a group dinner where one of the guys at my table took five minutes to photograph his food after it arrived. I just sat there while dinner got cold. He was being rude, right?
Well, definitely you shouldn’t be waiting for him to finish before you start your meal. With larger dining groups, in general we say that once three people have been served it’s okay to start. As for the food photos, you want to do them quickly and then put your phone away so that you can focus on the experience you’re having. That’s sort of the overarching theme with phones: Ignoring the people that we are with in order to attend to our phones is a clear breach of etiquette.
What about leaving cell phones on the table: never okay, okay as long as they’re turned over, okay in certain circumstances?
Well, of course there are situations where you want to have immediate access to you phone — maybe you are waiting to hear from a babysitter or maybe there is a pressing work situation. But, I think the word emergency maybe gets tossed around a bit [too much]. We do these presentations in high schools and the kids always say, “I need to have my phone out [at school] in case of an emergency.” I don’t want to sound ageist, but I’m thinking — you’re 14. What kind of an emergency are you anticipating? There are also some cases in which a phone can enhance a conversation, like when you’re having a debate and you can check something on your phone. Otherwise I would say it’s always better to have it in your pocket or your purse where you can check it easily, but it’s not taking up space on the table. The problem is not those case-by-case scenarios, it’s the fact that having our phones out has become the default and it impacts the way we interact with each other. You have people who have waited all this time to get together and then everyone’s just scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush. That’s just depressing.
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Depressing and rude! Is there a way to politely respond to being phubbed by a friend?
Depending on the relationship and your comfort level, you can make a joke, like, “hey, I didn’t realize your phone was so much more interesting than my company.” Or you can go the sincere route and say, “You know, I was really looking forward to hanging out. I’m hoping we can have a phone-free afternoon.” My mom has a good one at Thanksgiving where she tells everyone, please feel free to take a photo of the spread, and then please put your phones away. Everyone seems to be okay with that.
Should you ask before posting a group photo to social media?
Well, that’s the other time a phone can be great in a group situation — if you want to get a photo to mark the occasion. Definitely ask about posting and tagging on Instagram or Facebook. I have friends who just don’t want to be on social media and the proper etiquette is to respect that. Also, you don’t want to spend ten minutes choosing a filter and coming up with the perfect hashtags. Maybe save that until you have some time later.
What about social-media reveals. Like if you’re at a wedding or meeting a new baby, is it rude to post a photo before the bride or groom or new parent?
We call it scooping someone’s news and it is definitely a transgression. It’s not that the rules have to be hard and fast, it’s just that the polite thing to do is ask. If you’re a part of the bridal party and you take a picture of the bride while she’s getting ready, you should definitely check with her before posting.
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There have been a lot of conversations lately criticizing people for taking selfies at famous tragedy sites. Is there a respectful way to take a selfie at the Anne Frank House or the Chernobyl disaster site?
I haven’t seen it yet. I think maybe selfies just feel a little too casual in those circumstances. If you’re a family visiting Auschwitz and you want to commemorate that, I think it’s acceptable to take a photograph. Obviously small things like [facial] expressions are important.
I’ve heard people say that leaving a voice mail rather than texting is now officially rude. What do you think?
It’s definitely not! Every year I leave a voice mail for my friend on her birthday and I sing her the song. That’s not going to come through in a text. I can see how, for a lot of practical interactions, texting is more convenient. But you know — if you want to know something really quickly, the fastest way can still be picking up the phone.
As long as the other person answers. I have also heard that a lot of Gen Z phone users consider it rude to call without texting first.
That’s another one that’s maybe more about practicality than etiquette. I think the idea there is that a text is sort of like a check in, like — “is now a good time to talk?” But, you know, a lot of us have gotten too timid about picking up the phone, which is not necessarily a good thing. I remember a few years back a guy actually called me to ask me out for the first time. I was impressed.
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What is the appropriate timeline for text responses? I feel like some people see it more like you’re in the room having a conversation with someone, where as other see it more like email.
I definitely don’t think it’s like being in a room with someone, but texting is more of a conversation than email. Whenever possible if you need to duck out of a text chat, just say so. “Gotta go. Talk later.” I think people understand that. As far as responding to a question or something, 24 hours is as long as you should let it go. Of course, if you make a mistake, just apologize.
Finally, emojis in a work email: perfectly acceptable or unprofessional?
As a rule it’s probably best to save the emojis for corresponding with friends. I mean, obviously between colleagues a smiley face or a thumbs up is no problem. But the other thing is that a lot of work email servers don’t read emojis so there is the possibility that a message will be misread. If you’re putting a joke in, best to add a “haha” just in case.

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