I was at a meeting the other day when someone walked in while reading his smart phone. He stayed for several minutes, still engrossed in his smart phone and left, still reading his smart phone. He never once acknowledged the person next to him or the presenter. He didn’t do this maliciously, but his cell phone etiquette was simply atrocious.

I have long believed that we need to develop a formal doctrine for cell phone etiquette. We have lost all sense of decorum. The person on line at the bank engages in a loud argument with her spouse and complains that others are eavesdropping. What does she expect, that we wear sound proof ear plugs?
 
Too many people, myself included, walk up to the clerk at the store while talking on the phone. We ignore the clerk and focus on our phones. The simple pleasantries of please and thank you, hello and goodbye are replaced by curt nods and dismissals of the clerk’s existence. You are not a human being, we telegraph unconsciously to the clerk. You are a robot providing a service I require. The only human I recognize at the moment is the one on my phone.
 
Then there is the man in a restaurant booth talking on his phone. The waiter wants to take his order, but is ignored till the man finishes his conversation. He is in the waiter’s place of business, why need the waiter wait for him? Of course he is the customer, but what of decency and old fashioned respect?
 
All this passed through my mind while sitting at that meeting and I resolved to write a cell phone etiquette doctrine myself. Then I  realized that this doctrine has already been written. The rules that govern Synagogue etiquette also govern cell phone etiquette. The wheel need not be reinvented, it need only be reapplied.
 
One of the primary forms of worship in a house of G-d, is prayer. The rules of prayer are simple. When talking to G-d, concentrate on G-d. Don’t engage your stray thoughts. It is almost impossible to prevent stray thoughts from popping up in our heads. No matter how strongly we concentrate, associative thoughts that distract our focus are bound to pop up. Prayer etiquette is to ignore them. We can’t stop them from popping up, but we can refuse to engage them.
 
If you pray for sustenance you might start thinking of your next business meeting or upcoming bill. If you pray for health thoughts of your prevailing ailments might pop up. You can’t stop that, but you can dismiss them as quickly as they show up and return to your prayers. They will poke at you, but you can and should refuse to respond.
 
The same holds true for the cell phone. When you are at a meeting, you can’t stop your phone from importing your texts, emails, whatsapp and facebook messages, but you can refuse to read them. You can’t stop your friends from calling your phone, but you can refuse to take the call.
 
Of course there is more to it than that. Our prayers are usually as effective as our preparations. The more we prepare, the more effective our concentration will be. Preparation for prayer entails a period of calm reflection on G-d and the fact that we are about to appeal to Him. This turns off our stream of worldly thoughts and crystalizes our focus on G-d. With this introduction, it is easier to ignore the pings of our stray thoughts.
 
A similar form of preparation is necessary before entering a meeting. You know your will receive several phone calls and scores of messages during the meeting, but if you take a moment to silence the pings of these distractions, it will be easier to ignore them. Turn off or at least silence your phone and it won’t ping you, when a message arrives. You will still be tempted to check, but it will be easier to ignore it.
 
One of the laws governing prayer is that while the leader chants from the Torah, we ought not pray or read other materials, even Torah materials. We must concentrate on the chanting.
 
If only we adapted this law to cell phone etiquette, the world would be a more welcoming place. The gist of the rule is that we ought not to ignore the people around us in favor of something else. When you are at a meeting, don’t read your messages. When you are at a date, don’t focus on your cell phone. Don’t you just love the image of a couple on a date, each reading their smart phone and totally ignoring each other? When you are in the presence of others, don’t ignore them. They come first.
 
This leads me to my next rant. Why is it that when you are talking to me and your phone rings, you make me wait, while the caller gets your attention? Why shouldn’t the caller wait, while I keep your attention? After all, you were previously engaged, when the caller called in. My cardinal rule is that I don’t answer the phone, when I am talking to others unless I obtain their permission first. You would never think of opening a novel to read while someone was talking to you, a cell phone is no different.
 
Here is my favorite one. Synagogue etiquette dictates that if someone wants to chat while the reader chants from the Torah, they must take it outside. Further, even if they started their chat earlier, they must fall silent when the reading begins. Even further, should they want to step out to continue their chat, they must wait till the end of the reading. It is forbidden to walk out in the middle of a reading.
 
If your phone rings in the public library, don’t take the call. If you have take the c all, step out. It is not proper decorum to hold a conversation in a quiet reading room. Even if you were on the phone before you walked in, don’t continue the conversation as you walk in. Finish your conversation and then walk in. Don’t disturb others with your personal needs.
 
If you are in a meeting and a text comes in, don’t step out in the middle of a presentation to answer it. It is insulting to the presenter when you walk out on him. Without meaning to, you are signaling that the presenter is not important to you at the moment. Surely there are exceptions for times of crises but on a regular basis, hold the call and get back to it later.
 
The rules of Synagogue decorum are designed to help us remember that we are in G-d’s Home. Failing to show proper respect for G-d in His home, is the equivalent of disrespecting Him.  G-d surely deserves our respect, but so do people. G-d created us in His image and respecting His image shows respect for Him. Your friend from afar is very important, but the person in front of you deserves dignity too.
 
So the next time your phone rings remember that a piece of plastic is less important than a human being. Let the person distract you from the phone, don’t let the phone distract you from the person.


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