How Should Rude Cell Phone Behavior be Handled?

The subject of bad cell phone manners has a lot of people pissed off. By most recent Blog “When Using a Smart Phone Isn’t Very Smart” generated a lot of response including many emails sent to me direct, complaining about this topic. Emotions ranged from moderate irritation to outright anger at this blatant disregard for common courtesy. So how should we handle these situations when we encounter them? I am interested to hear from you about this very disrespectful mannerism.

So I asked myself , “Am I also an offender of this offensive behavior”? And my answer (and I admit this very embarrassingly)  is yes – sometimes –  meaning that if I am expecting a call I will answer the phone and then respectfully tell the caller that I am in a meeting and I will call them back. Is this acceptable? It seems not. That is what voicemail is for, but why do I feed compelled to be so available?  I am seriously going to evaluate how I handle these situations and change my actions moving forward. It is so easy to criticize others even when you are also at fault. 

So this brings me back to my original question, how do we handle these situations proactively? Like when someone answers their cell phone while you are in the middle of an important conversation… when people in your immediate proximity talk about inappropriate stuff… when someone stops to read a text during a meeting…. when someone’s loud annoying ringtone goes off in the middle of a presentation… and the list goes on.  This subject has been addressed again and again with list after list of cell phone etiquette tips being presented….How to be polite when using your PDA.  How to have good cell phone manners. Google “cell phone etiquette” and there are several pages of articles.  Even The Huffington Post recently provided 15 rules to follow and back in 2008 another list was generated, but if you Google something about “how to handle rude cell phone behavior” there is a lack of information on the topic. Most of us do nothing because we just don’t know what to do or say or perhaps we don’t know how to stop our own inadequate conduct. It seems these tips and recommendations are not helping although we are still pissed off about this epidemic of rudeness.

My point of view is to not address rudeness with rudeness. Start by making a reasonable request and ask them to not answer their phone, text, email while you are presenting/talking because it is distracting to you and those around you. Be firm, but polite. If they fail to comply you can evaluate your best response based on your situation. In my classroom, I ask students to leave. When I am with a client I let it go, when I am with a colleague, depending on the situation, I may leave so I can attend to my own business needs.

What suggestions do you have??? Knowing  this is a problem has already been addressed, now let’s figure out what to do about it. This is your chance to speak out and I will share the results….


  • Michelle

    I agree that you don’t want to attack ‘rude with rude’. I start all client meetings by turning my phone to vibrate (or off all together!) in front of my clients. I then ask them to do the same. I ‘set the example’ as I tell my children.

    On the flip side, I do my best not to be rude to others by answering my phone, texts or emails during meetings where I’m not presenting. I will glance at a phone number or see who a message is from. But I have yet to receive a message that is so urgent that it can’t wait an hour to address.

  • startingovernow

    I once saw a grocery store checkout clerk stop processing the groceries through the scanner until the customer got off the phone. I guess that might seem severe but often we can give non-verbal cues that get our message across. I never leave a meeting or interrupt a conversation for a cell phone call. And if call waiting beeps in I look at who it is and plan to call them back as soon as I am finished. People start to know you will do this and respect that their call is returned promptly if you are on the phone. I treat a person on the phone the same way I would treat them if they are with me and vice versa. It’s just good manners.

  • Laura

    My answer would be, “It depends.” I think it is silly to assume anyone is ever really present just because they are looking at you and nodding. A smart phone may be an overt distraction, but the person checking traffic on Google Maps might be listening to you more than the individual thinking about the argument they had with their spouse that morning. You never really can tell.

    The real issue to me is whether or not someone is are fulfilling their end of the the bargain for that interaction. If they are invited to a meeting as a courtesy or to be available to answer very specific questions should they arise, then as long as they can answer without a beat when I need them, I don’t care if they are using the toilet during the meeting. What business it is of mine?

    If I am at dinner with a friend or on a date, the expectation might be completely different. The act of looking into my eyes or having their hands free to put in mine might be critical to the experience.

    If someone is not meeting your expectation for the interaction, and it is someone with whom you expect to interact again, it makes sense and is fair to share with them that you are not getting out of that interaction what you expected. That’s the issue. If they can ride a unicycle, make you feel heard and do what you need them to do all at once, who cares?

    But I would argue that most of us know our ability to communicate and contribute to an interaction can be compromised when we do other things. Getting a polite, direct nudge that we are disappointing someone can be a good reminder that, in a multi-tasking age, things remain that require our full attention. They’re called people.

  • Diane Laz

    I believe in communication so I totally agree with your statements … Start by making a reasonable request and ask them to not answer their phone, text, email while you are presenting/talking because it is distracting to you and those around you. Be firm, but polite. If they fail to comply you can evaluate your best response based on your situation. In addition, I would like the person to tell me prior to our meeting if they are expecting any important calls. If they do, I would prefer they politely leave the room to take care of it.

  • Susan Rhodes

    This is an interesting topic – and perhaps I’m just so used to those around me using technology almost non-stop, that I never really stopped to think about whether it offends others. Personally, I don’t take my cell phone into meetings at all – and, I turn it off whenever I am having an important discussion with someone. My children have tried to use cell phones during dinner or in restaurants – and, I have now enforced that this behavior isn’t appropriate most of the time.. If I am teaching my children how to be more polite and aware, hopefully they will use those manners when they are out on their own. In the end, I’d say to use common sense and have respect for everyone’s time – and to treat others the way that you would want to be treated. If someone has no regard for you – then politely remind them about it. Thanks for your article!

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