Is Public Phone Etiquette Dead? You Won’t Believe What People Are Doing

Drazen Zigic /
Drazen Zigic /

Once you notice it, you’ll see it happening all around us, almost everywhere we go. There’s the woman on FaceTime at the next table in the restaurant, the man scrolling Instagram Reels during the elementary school band concert, the employee in a virtual meeting at the pool sitting next to someone reading, and fellow commuters or travelers enjoying some tunes – all on speakerphone.

This shift hasn’t been immediate, but gradually, more people in public places have stopped using headphones, opting to share their conversations with everyone nearby. With so many headphone options available, this choice is baffling. Do you really want me to hear all about your mom’s recent doctor’s appointment while we’re both in the cereal aisle at Target? It’s hard to avoid eavesdropping when a stranger nearby has the volume cranked up.

Smartphones make it easy to entertain ourselves at the slightest hint of boredom. They also offer distractions from stress, worldly worries, and other pressures, with the side effects of FOMO and doom-scrolling potentially worsening our mood. Why might people choose to watch or listen to something publicly on their mobile phones without headphones?

They’re certainly not thinking about those around them. This self-focused behavior isn’t necessarily malicious. When engrossed in content or interactions, people often don’t consider how it might negatively affect others. Public disruptions due to noise are nothing new, but the proliferation of noisy technology has amplified the issue.

The shift in how people use their mobile phones and personal devices has been gradual but seems to be growing more disruptive at a rapid rate. Advances in technology and increased prices make it easier to choose to go without headphones. Improvements to microphones, speakers, and noise-suppressing capabilities on our phones, tablets, and laptops allow better background noise and overall audio filtering. But when so many of us are generally unbothered by what others are doing, why are loud speakerphone calls so, well, annoying?

Environmental stimuli naturally attract our attention, making it hard to ignore someone else’s loud phone activity. While some can tune out such distractions better, it is still a nuisance. Another influence on our current public behavior may be how phone use is often portrayed on television and in movies, particularly on reality shows. Having phone calls on speakerphone or sharing whatever is happening on the device out loud captures the exchanges for the audience.

What we’re seeing may also impact our own behavior. When we perceive certain behaviors as normal or acceptable, we may adopt them ourselves, even if they are generally considered rude. This phenomenon is known as pluralistic ignorance, where we mistakenly believe others are more accepting of behavior than they actually are.

One thing that may not be loud enough is our voices. Most of us are reluctant to speak up if something is bothering or distracting us. We might avoid asking someone to lower the volume or use headphones, even though it could help others understand that their behavior is rude. Many people hesitate to engage in difficult conversations or provide feedback, fearing negative reactions. Instead, we vent our frustrations on social media or with friends but avoid direct confrontations. However, difficult conversations often go better than expected and can strengthen relationships.

Finding a balance between ignoring those around us and being too self-conscious about our behavior is crucial. Our actions, whether talking loudly on the phone or watching videos, impact others. With technology becoming an integral part of our lives and focusing our attention, we may be shifting too far into self-focus and losing mindfulness of how our actions affect others.