The etiquette of mobile device usage

Consider this: a group of friends gather socially. They're interacting, not taking mobile snaps of their cocktails and Facebooking them off to “friends” who aren't friends. They're socializing in person—at a restaurant or similar establishment. Actual conversation takes place.

The friends all stack their mobile devices in the center of the table as soon as they arrive. The mobiles can do whatever they want, but the first person who TOUCHES their device pays the bill. For the entire group. “Oh I'm sorry...” OK, you get the mai daan for the privilege.

I'm not making this up. It's called Phone Stack, and was invented by a guy named Brian Perez. As this article explains: “At the start of the meal diners place their mobile device face down in a pile on the table. The first person to grab their phone, for whatever reason, loses the game and has to pay for everyone’s meal. If everyone resists the temptation for the duration of the dinner, then the check is split.”

Net etiquette
Still, there are rules for politeness in mobile space as well as cyberspace. Netizens know that typing IN ALL CAPS is rude. It's like shouting using text. Then there's the flame wars that often wreck online communities as petty disputes swamp forums.

So what are the rules for mobile device etiquette? I don't know. It used to be that mobile phone owners would set them to silent-mode in public events, and only answer calls if they were urgent. I still abide by those rules, and know others who do as well.

But perhaps politeness isn't what it used to be in the mobile space. And a recent practice has me boiling.


Ever heard of headphones?
For years, people have been watching video on their smartphones. I've done it—on long-haul flights, when my laptop battery ran out, I've watched video on my phone. The best time was when, jet-lagged, I reached the end of a two-hour documentary on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick just before the announcement to switch off mobile devices.

But of course I listened to the soundtrack on headphones. Ear buds, big honking over-the-ear bass-centric DJ headphones, whatever. The idea is simple: don't disturb others with your personal entertainment.

Regrettably, this elemental concept seems to elude a few phone/tablet owners. And for the life of me, I can't understand why.

Wrecking the calm of others
I've only noticed it beginning this year, but people are increasingly playing video on their devices WITH THE SOUND TURNED UP (and yes, I'm shouting that last bit). As the speakers on these devices are generally tinny, the volume's cranked up and you have a person staring at a puny screen that's screaming with...whatever.

I have little understanding and no sympathy. Do these people grab a magazine off a shelf at 7-11 and stand at the counter reading it at the top of their lungs? Do they go to cinemas and shout constantly throughout the film?

Don't do this next to me
My Cantonese is limited at best, but I make my objections visible. I glare at these people destroying my calm with the latest soap opera shriekage. Is it so difficult to understand that an entire coffeeshop might not want to listen to a high-volume soundtrack that only the disturbing party can actually watch? If the headphones that came with that expensive device went missing, are replacements difficult or expensive to obtain?


Equally perplexing is the behavior of fellow diners/coffee-drinkers. Many understand Cantonese so they're actually getting content from this high-volume trebly intrusion (at least I'm spared that). Yet no one seems to even glance. Are we so inured to noise that we no longer notice when people fire up their own personal jackhammers?

I'm sufficiently irked to scour my box of miscellaneous stuff for spare earphones, which I will carry. The next time this happens, the person will receive a free gift from me. Meanwhile, I have another phrase I must add to my survival Cantonese: “Excuse me, I see you forgot your earphones...”