Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an etiquette for socially responsible use

In any communication using intrusive communications technologies such as mobile phones, SMS, VoiP and IM there are actually 4 different parties who each have rights (and obligations). In this article I suggest a structure for a “Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette” .


PHOTO: Steve Martin fights rude mobile phone users

PolITE – Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette

A “Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette” (PoLITE for short) needs to show due consideration to all of these parties in such a communication in at least the following areas:

  • Privacy
  • Unavailability
  • Reasonable Response
  • Full Attention
  • Reasonable Continuity
  • Non-Disruption

Some thought has already been given to this in the mobile phone space for example, European Communications Magazine (Jan 2005) report on the results of a study into the etiquette of business communications in the digital age, undertaken by Surrey Social and Market Research (SSMR) at the University of Surrey, Guildford, England.

The study suggests 8 useful guidelines for the considerate use of mobile phones:

  1. Have your mobile off or on silent in meetings
  2. Change your mobile voicemail to request text for urgent messages
  3. Turn your device screens off when holding meetings in your office
  4. If you are expecting an urgent call apologise and warn others in advance
  5. The person you are talking to deserves your full attention
  6. Hold private calls in private places
  7. Break out of e-mail jail – talk to your colleagues
  8. Technology is not power – it doesn't signify your importance

But can we develop a more generalised Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette which covers more than just mobile phones?

The diagram below attempts to summarise the 4 parties and 6 different rights they hold:


It would be possible to create a 16 cell matrix where we showed the required etiquette for each of the 4 parties (receivers, senders, engaged parties and disinterested parties) and each of the 4 technologies (mobile phones, SMS, VoiP and IM) . However in the interest of brevity and simplicity here is my discussion starter on a Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette

Party 1. The Receiver


The two most important rights of the Receiver would seem to be “Privacy” and “Unavailability”. The two are interrelated – privacy is about not taking a call at all and unavailability is about finding a convenient time to take a call.


To protect these rights there is an obligation on the sender – for example using VoiP (such as skype) they should follow the practice of “Ping before Ring” – i.e. messaging to establish if a VoiP call is convenient before it is actually made.

Party 2. The Sender


The most important right of the Sender in this case would seem to be “Reasonable Response” – the expectation of an appropriate reply in a certain timeframe dependent on the subject of the communications and the relationship between receiver and sender.


To protect this right I suggest there is an obligation on the receiver to keep their presence information up to date so that the sender can see when a response can be expected. Also, if possible, the receiver should try to acknowledge that they have received the message and even better if they can offer a “by when” for a reply.

In addition the receiver should treat seriously the act of putting somebody on their buddy list. It would be better to decline such a request at the outset than to include someone only to neglect communicating with them. To me putting you on my buddy list implies I am offering to communicate with you on reasonable topics of shared interest in a reasonable timeframe. Even better if both parties can agree expectations here.

Party 3. Engaged Parties

These are the people who may be already in a communications session with either the sender or the receiver when the other communication happens


The two most important rights of the Engaged Parties would seem to be “Full Attention” and “Reasonable Continuity”. The first is about not expecting the other party to be multi-tasking so much that they are not paying attention. The second is the expectation that the communication once started should not be fragmented through multiple or long interruptions.


To protect these rights I suggest there is an obligation on the sender and receiver to wherever possible avoid initiating or replying to communications whilst they are already in communications.

Party 4. Disinterested Parties

These are the people who not in any communications session with either the sender or the receiver but may be impacted when another communication happens. For example, a phone call ringing in a concert hall audience!


The most important right of the Disinterested Parties would seem to be the “Non-Disruption” for example by a loud ringing tone or by being forced to hear a conversation in which they have no part.


This seems to mostly apply to audio calls (Mobile or VoiP). To protect this right I suggest there is an obligation on the sender and receiver to fully use their voice mail facilities on mobile phone and VoiP. The previous article on Social Mobile research is very relevant here.

All comments, suggestions and improvements gratefully received!


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I like it. This uses a common sense approach and lays it out in an easily understandable format. Now, we need to get the senders and receivers to buy into this so the disinterested parties (who currently are probably the most abused) can get some relief.

I say the disinterested parties are the most abused because that is what I have seen in my experience. When I have been engaged in a conversation, and the other party is interrupted, they are generally most apologetic. In the same circumstance, I as a rule, do not allow interruptions.

But the disinterested parties, of which I tend to be one commuting via train regularly, ah there is a different story. Many times, the phone rings (1 - we heard it) and then the conversation starts (2 - we are now involved, like it or not). It is amazing what folks will talk about in public. When they get on a phone, they must think this bubble envelops them and they disappear to the rest of the world. Now there is an idea!

A cell phone with an enveloping bubble that encloses the phone person when they are on it in a sound proof chamber. Hmmm, how could we do that? I need to go to the drawing board....


Thanks for the comment - you should offer that idea to IDEO - some of the ideas they put into their social mobiles were quite radical! I particularly like prototype 1 which delivers a mild electric shock if you talk too loud!


I remember reading that artcile when it came out and thinking it entirely sensible. The key here is that you have an understanding of why, when people want to contact you, and what you can do to pre-organise your "response routines". For instance, if person A calls me, and they are my most important client, I may want to take that call no matter what the other settings. Person B, rings and is also a customer, but perhaps not as important as the first one, so an "apologies for being unavailable message" is played, and then the person could be given dynamic options to see if would like to be put through to another senions sales representative, or to Kens personal assistant. So, perhaps it is in the ability to provide additional granularity in the entire interaction cycle that the future lies. Just some an ideas.

Your blog is perfect, and I like this article. I find the information I need. I think I can find more useful information here, Thanks for sharing with us.


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