What We Need to Know About Cell Phone Etiquette

The “hot dog hold.”


There’s an episode of the sitcom New Girl where lovably pedantic Schmidt pulls out his ringing mobile.  Incredulous, he says, “What?  My phone hasn’t rung in two years!”

There’s plenty of truth in that one-liner.   We have Skype.  We have FaceTime.  And the too-convenient ability to text message.  Really, who talks on the phone anymore?  Mobile phones are hardly the simple chatting devices of ages past; they are fun-sized, portable computer devices, a far cry from the spring-tethered rotary dial model and the cordless version my family used to lose under the couch cushions.  We communicate so differently than we did a generation ago, or even as recently as when our kids were born.

But I honestly thought my kids knew how to talk on the phone.  Visual osmosis?  Having seen it done on tv?  (interestingly, today’s kids do recognize an old-fashioned rotary phone as a phone.)  But I was brought back to reality when my mobile rang (!) and it was one of my son’s buddies.   I handed off to my son, who then held the phone like a hot dog in a bun and started talking into the bottom end of it.

Really.  He didn’t get it.  Even when we tried to explain to him how to hold the phone, he had a blank look on his face.

We don’t have a land line.  So when our kids’ friends call, they call my mobile, which functions as our home phone. But after several sweetly awkward conversations with my kids’ friends, who are shyly being coached (Mom’s voice heard in the background) I realized something:  since the phones in the house are “dad’s” or “mom’s,”  we’ve never taught our kids phone etiquette.  We FaceTime with family, or often use the speaker function, so no wonder my son was confused.  And I normally text or email with parents to arrange “playdates.”  I rarely talk on the phone.  So my kids never do.  

Sound familiar?

So let’s talk phone etiquette for the modern day.

Phone designs may go out of style, but good manners never do.

I have to laugh when I can’t get to my phone and ask one of my kids to answer it:  the look of mild terror is rather priceless, like they think the thing may explode if they accept the call.  (Ok, that’s not funny.  Phones have been known to do that…).  But the reaction, along with a tentative Uh….hello??  is a good indication the kids feel out of their league…they are more comfortable with using the phone to play Flow Free and Temple Run.  So, as with many good habits we want our kids to learn, we need to:

Practice.  Give kids a simple script, whether they are making or receiving a call.  And rehearse before the phone rings for real.  When they answer they can use a variation of Hello, “Rocket” residence, “Jake” speaking.  (Use your real names, though.)  Consider where your comfort zone lies; you may chose to not have kids identify themselves.  And when they make a call, Hello, this is “Mickey. May I speak to “Minnie”?  Also practice how to take a message.  Coach kids to say She’s unavailable (not “not home” for safety reasons) right now, may I take a message?  And keep a pad of paper and pen in a set location so kids know where to find them if needed.

Set a good example.  When I make or receive phone calls, I make a point of doing so within earshot of my kids.  Firstly because they can hear how it’s supposed to be done; secondly, because I don’t want to say something out-of-line when I call our senators to voice an opinion or decline a telemarketer wanting to sell me satellite tv.  My kids keep me human; and they learn to be polite at the same time.

Beyond the basics:  cell phone etiquette.

Portable phones that function as cameras and computers take communication to a whole new level.  And the rules of good behavior become more complicated.  Here’s a few things to consider when kids have access to mobile devices.

Lower the volume and respect the space.  Talk with kids about how to keep conversations private (or not having them at all) when out in public.  A great rule of thumb, according to Jan Faull, MEd, is the “ten-foot rule.”  If you must take/make a call in a public location, keep at least ten feet of space between you and others.  That said, talk with you kids about when to mute the mobile:  movie theatres, meetings, places of worship, libraries and medical offices.  And always speak in a quiet voice.  For some reason, we tend to talk more loudly when on the phone and don’t even realize it.  Practice discretion and teach kids to do the same when on the phone.

Wheels and mobiles don’t mix, even though we are mobile on wheels.  Again, the best example is our example; don’t even touch that phone when driving and remind kids to never talk, text and drive when the earn their drivers’ permits.   Help kids understand this rule also applies to other kinds of “wheels:”  bicycles, skateboards and scooters, in-lines.  And even skis and snowboards.  Yes.  I wouldn’t have even thought about the latter two if I hadn’t had a close call with a snowboarder who was more interested in her phone than minding the slope.  A good rule of thumb:  if you are engaged in an activity where you need to watch for the other guy, put the phone away.

Make it a real conversation, not a lecture.  Jan Faull, MEd, suggests a great way to boost kids’ awareness of good phone manners.  Have a real discussion that uses the following questions:

If you are at a family gathering or another social event, what should you do if you need to take a call?  

Should a phone call interrupt a “family meeting”?  

When should taking a call be more important that what you are doing at the time?  

What if everyone talked on the phone everywhere they went?

How much do you guess a phone costs?  (Then show her monthly bills.)

Stay virtually safe.  My son loves to take pics on my mobile and on his IPad.  Fortunately he narrates aloud most of what he’s doing on technology (which can drive his brother batty) so I know if he intends to take and forward photos. But taking his tendency for granted has only reminded me of the golden opportunity to teach him discretion with his itchy shutter finger.  Kids, like the rest of us, need to ask before taking pics and be completely transparent in their want to forward on those pictures.  Consent is crucial.  Also, monitor the apps kids request for their devices; check those sites for security and show kids how to evaluate that as well, declining to upload any that look suspicious.  Also, as parents we have the authority and right to monitor any and all social networking kids are a part of.  This is not a negotiable point.  If kids balk, they lose the privilege.  Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, second edition, gives an earful (I guess it’s an eyeful, being in a book…) on the subject of social networking and kids.  Definitely check it out.

There is a time and a place.  Consider establishing “tech-free” zones in your home.  Set up a charging station for all technology outside the bedroom so there isn’t the temptation to use it just before bed or just after waking up.

There’s a lot to consider in the age of mobile devices, not simply the basic rules of phone etiquette.  Privacy is harder to maintain, the sky’s the limit on our availability to other people and on accessibility to infinite sources of information.  It’s hard enough for us adults to navigate, and extra difficult for kids.  To teach and live by the daily task of discretion and safety with cell phone use is a modern-day challenge.


There ‘ya go, buddy!


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