Here’s a scene that’s probably familiar. You’re in a waiting room or on a bus and someone nearby speaks to you. Maybe you didn’t hear the person clearly or maybe you didn’t understand why he said what he said. So you turn to him to ask him to repeat it, and you notice he’s wearing an earpiece. He is talking on his smart phone and not addressing you at all. It happens so often that it doesn’t even qualify as an embarrassing moment any more. It always leaves me feeling a little uneasy, however — as if I have encountered someone from another dimension.

We tend to think of privacy as something we own and protect. But there is another side to privacy. Your privacy isn’t just a blessing to you; it is a courtesy to others. It’s embarrassing to overhear someone else’s personal conversation. When you don’t respect your own boundaries, you make everyone around you uncomfortable.

And yet some people seem to believe their mobile phone creates a cone of silence around them rather than exposing their personal affairs to the inspection of strangers. It doesn’t. Your cell phone is your private life, and when you air it out in public, the people around you will likely find you to be intrusive and perhaps rude.

An ABC News poll from a few years back found 87% of Americans sometimes encounter people talking on mobile phones in public places in a loud or annoying manner. A clear majority — 57% — said they experience it often. It was the most frequently reported of “bad behaviors” in that particular survey.

It’s not designated by Congress or anything, but July is Cell Phone Courtesy Month, a tradition dating from 2002 and attributed to etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. She offered this as the first rule of cell phone courtesy: “Be all there. When you’re in a meeting, performance, courtroom or other busy area, let calls go to voicemail to avoid a disruption. In some instances, it’s best to put your phone on silent mode.” Amen.

I invite you to check Whitmore’s other nine rules at the link above for your celebration of Cell Phone Courtesy Month. They are all about keeping your own privacy, not intruding on others, and staying safe (“Don’t text and drive.”)

At Communispond, in our Executive Presentation Skills® program, we teach students that the first thing to do in a presentation is take control of the mobile phones. Before you say anything else, stand before the audience, hold your mobile phone up, and say, “This presentation should last ___ minutes. Please switch off your phone until we’re done.” Then switch off your phone. Our experience is that nearly everyone will follow suit.

Don’t worry that you’re being bossy. You are doing the audience a favor when you offer this reminder. I understood the quality of this favor the first time I attended a funeral at which the officiator performed the step. Can you imagine how mortifying it would have been to interrupt a eulogy or a moment of silence with a ring tone? It’s far better that you, as speaker, save an audience member from that experience with this little reminder.


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