Smartiquette: Please keep it civil!

July 2018

Your best friend has been waiting for you at a restaurant for about ten minutes already, while you are still waiting for a delayed subway. All you need to do is send a quick text message and she’ll know what is happening. Your boss wants to reach you at home tonight to go over tomorrow‘s client presentation again? Thanks to the smartphone, there is no need to hang around at the office late into the night. Instead, you can get comfortable on the sofa awaiting his email. In a short space of time, smartphones have become our constant companions and aids. However, the ubiquitous quality of these mobile all-rounders also entails downsides. When conversing with others, watching a movie in the theatre or trying to concentrate on a lecture or presentation, the constant ringing of cellphones around us can be irritating. Many Germans agree. While they appreciate the benefits of the smartphone, they also value politeness and etiquette.

There are no official smartphone guidelines or etiquette governing behavior for use of cellphones in society, but there are some helpful suggestions, such as those proposed by „Wirtschaftswoche“ magazine in an article published back in May 2015. For example, the article suggests putting smartphones away during meetings and keeping your distance when making calls. Presumably, many Germans would agree with these suggestions. The “agree“ and “disagree“ values for five specific statements concerning smartphone use around other people would seemingly indicate this at any rate, according to the representative survey of around 2,000 Germans aged 14+ carried out by the GfK Verein in the fall of 2017. However, opinions differ when it comes to the smartphone as a supplier of instant information.

When were France last world champions? Exactly what did Trump tweet yesterday? All it takes is a few seconds and the information pops up on our smartphone screens. More than half of Germans find this practical, especially during conversations or discussions. In general, 56% agree with the statement that it is advantageous in such situations to be able to quickly research further aspects and contribute findings to a debate, while 14% strongly agree with the statement. Nevertheless, the other 44% are evidently not of this opinion. They either tend to not agree or wholeheartedly disagree with the statement. However, for many respondents, it is simply too easy, too fast and too convenient just to turn to their cellphones. They fear that this encourages a degree of lazy thinking, brought about by the constant availability of information online. In total, 53% of respondents do not believe that immediately reaching for smartphones, instead of first thinking about the issue at hand or discussing it among others, is a good thing. One in five respondents were in complete agreement with this.

The majority find the constant presence of cellphones disruptive

Although popular opinion among the population is divided on the subject of obtaining information via smartphones, this is not the case for statements on the subjects of politeness and paying attention towards others. When it comes to someone constantly checking smartphone notifications or even you yourself writing a message to someone else, only a minority of survey subjects felt relaxed about this when around other people. Only around one third were not really bothered by this, as the number of those agreeing with the statement shows. And only one in ten had absolutely no problem with it all. What Germans find even more disturbing is when a person they are talking to suddenly disrupts a conversation by using their smartphone. Three quarters of the respondents find it unacceptable to varying degrees to interrupt a conversation without apologizing when a call or a message comes in, while 41% of them find it completely unacceptable. Evidently, the majority of Germans find it annoying when the person they are talking to stops paying attention. The most sensitive aspect, however, seems to concern privacy and data protection, with a majority of 81% agreeing with the statement “I don’t want other people taking photos or videos of me without first asking if that is okay with me”. One in two subjects agreed completely with the statement. Perhaps they are just worried about not being seen in a favorable light, or maybe they find it disrespectful not to maintain the rights to their own image. Data protection reasons may also play a role: in some cases, respondents are hugely concerned that photos and films could fall into the wrong hands and cannot be deleted from the Internet. 

Smartphone users: thumbs up for rapid research!

While smartphone density is extremely high in Germany, not every German owns a smartphone (yet). The assumption may well be that all those who have so far rejected iPhones and other smartphone variants are more demanding in terms of courtesy than the users of such cellphones. However, this is only the case to very limited degree. Looking only at smartphone users – and they comprised 73% of all respondents – their thinking on smartphone etiquette differs only marginally from the attitudes of the general public, as a glance at the very clear-cut findings shows: Smartphone users are somewhat less bothered about the risk of lazy thinking (49% versus 53%). They feel less disturbed if others keep looking at their cellphones to check notifications or to send messages (38%). But anyone interrupting a conversation to take or make a call without apologizing or who takes photos and videos without asking for permission first is risking equally strong criticism and displeasure from smartphone users as from the general population. There is consensus on these issues. Only when it comes to obtaining information do attitudes differ significantly from those of the general population, with 68% finding it an advantage to be able to instantly research something – 12 percentage points higher than the respondents as a whole.

How much consideration we expect from others when it comes to smartphone use is therefore not particularly contingent on whether or not we ourselves use these phones. A look at the genders also reveals only minor discrepancies. Male respondents tended to be more relaxed on the subject of smartphone etiquette, with 35% of them saying that it didn’t bother them if someone in their company repeatedly reads or writes messages. With women, the figure was slightly lower, at 31%. If they were photographed or filmed without their prior permission, 83% of women and 79% of men would have a problem. Male respondents also more frequently advocated the benefits of being able to research arguments and information online: 58% of men agreed with the corresponding statement, with 54% of women concurring. Consequently, the difference between the genders – depending on the statement – is a maximum of four percentage points. Even taking just smartphone user responses and removing non-smartphone users from the equation, the picture only changes slightly: at a maximum of five points, the discrepancy between the male and female smartphone owners surveyed is only minor in comparison with all respondents.

While gender does not play a particularly great role on the subject of smartphone etiquette, age does seem to make a considerable difference. As a rule of thumb, the younger the person, the more relaxed they will be in terms of smartphone use. Consequently, they focus more on the advantages offered by smartphones. Indeed, they are more prone to accept a situation in which a person they are talking to is distracted by an iPhone or similar device instead of continuing to concentrate on the conversation. Conversely, older respondents place a higher value on complying with certain conventions of courtesy. The discrepancy between older and younger respondents increases still further in some cases when the responses of all Germans – i.e. smartphone users and non-users – are analyzed: 85% of 14-19 year-olds find it beneficial to be able to obtain instant information from their smartphones when in conversation. With increasing age, agreement with the statement steadily declines, and from 60+ onwards, the majority no longer agree with the statement, with only 42% concurring that instant information is an advantage. In the 70+ age group, the value drops to just 25%. A similar trend, even though the discrepancy between old and young is not quite as marked, is evident from the issue of using a smartphone during conversations with other people – and no longer paying sole attention to the people around you. More than half of 14-19 year olds (57%) had no problem with people continually checking their cellphones while in conversation. However, from the age of 30 onwards, the majority of respondents already feel differently. Agreement among 30-39 year-olds drops to 41%, before falling successively in older age groups. Among the 70+ generation, the figure falls back to just 19%. The older generations have decidedly less tolerance when conversations are abruptly interrupted without comment just because a smartphone rings or pings. In total, 81% of respondents aged 70+ regard this as “impossible”. The younger the respondent, the more relaxed they were on the issue: For 54% of 14-19 year olds, such interruptions are regarded as an expression of bad manners – meaning that even in the youngest age group, the majority are bothered by this type of abrupt withdrawal of attention.

Rights to own image: General agreement between the generations

Overall, younger people tend to focus more on smartphone usage, for example, on the ability to find answers to all sorts of questions in the blink of an eye. Only around one third of respondents in the youngest age group do not consider using smartphones to immediately find answers or solutions to be a good idea. In the 30-39 year-old age group, the statement already held true for one out of two respondents. Among respondents aged 70+, the figure was almost two thirds (62%). They prefer to first think about the issue at hand themselves or to discuss tricky points in actual conversation with others. Yet on one point all respondents are in agreement: Even the youngest respondents regard taking videos and photos without first asking permission to be unacceptable. Overall, 71% concurred with the statement that having your photo taken without prior permission was undesirable. In the most senior age group, the value was just nine points higher, while the figure is at its highest among 40-49 year-olds, with 86% finding it unacceptable that someone should photograph or film them without permission.

Smartphone users: More focus on the benefits, even among older respondents

The differences between the generations, which are in part quite considerable, can initially be attributed to the varying degrees of smartphone density. In many cases, older people still do not own a smartphone – and for this reason they are often more critical when others do not behave with consideration for others. This is evident when taking only the responses of smartphone users. Here, too, age is a factor, with younger smartphone users more relaxed and older users more critical, although in individual responses, the differences are far less pronounced. In this regard, more than one in two smartphone user respondents in the 60-69 year-old age group values the instant availability of information. However, in this same comparative group across all respondents – smartphone users and non-users alike – the majority are no longer in agreement with the statement (42%). The difference is even more marked in the 70+ age group: 46% find the ability to obtain information instantly during a conversation beneficial. However, when non-users are added to the equation, only about half this number agree. The oldest user group also seems more relaxed about disruptive phone calls, with 29% of smartphone users aged 70+ not too bothered about a face-to-face conversation being interrupted by a call or a message. This is still ten percentage points higher than the value obtained from the same comparative age group in which non-users are also included. 

How many rules do we need?

There are certain rules of behavior that we take for granted and don‘t think about any more. Of course, most of us continue to say “please” and “thank you”, we greet our neighbors or hold a door open for others on occasion. However, this degree of certainty is missing when it comes to smartphones. No wonder, since a smartphone is a relatively recent development. Anyone growing up with smartphones will find their constant presence unproblematic, or even necessary – after all, social exchanges between young people are mostly online and mobile these days, sometimes with unpleasant consequences. It is no coincidence that as early as three years ago, Langenscheidt – dictionary and encyclopedia publishers – voted “Smombie” their youth word of the year. The term, which is a portmanteau of smartphone and zombie, describes people who no longer pay attention to the environment in which they happen to find themselves, because they are preoccupied by staring at their cellphone screens. Older people who have spent some of their lives without cellphones find this hard to understand or regard it as impolite. Could smartphone etiquette provide us with help here? Perhaps it would help if both young and old recalled a quote by French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from time to time: “True courtesy is when we engage with others in the spirit of goodwill.” Anyone taking this to heart has every chance of managing good relationships with their counterparts – with or without a smartphone.


Data source: GfK Verein, GfK Consumer Study 2018 – Trendsensor Germany; For more information about this study please contact Ronald Frank (ronald.frank@gfk-verein.org).

Responsible for the article and contact person for any queries regarding Compact: Claudia Gaspar (claudia.gaspar@gfk-verein.org).


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