Communication Currents

Instructors' Corner: Communication Competence and Cell Phone Use

December 1, 2011
Instructional Communication

Cell phone use is evident in our society. Individuals have cell phone conversations while waiting in line at the grocery store, glance at their cell phones during meetings, check Facebook while having dinner with friends, have a meaningful phone conversation with a parent, and even text while sitting in church service. According to a Nielsen 2010 Media Industry Fact Sheet, there are over 223 million cell phone users over the age of 13 in the United States. In addition, recent research findings presented by Common Sense Media report that children in the United States as young as 0-2 years use mobile media. 

Cell phone policies for university classrooms and cell phone etiquette guidelines abound. For some, cell phone use in an educational setting is viewed as distributive in this environment. In addition, it is not uncommon for libraries to have cell phone use policies and determine what spaces in a library are no phone zones or phone friendly zones. 

Given the prevalence of cell phone use and the attempts to regulate its use, connections to communication competence need to be explored. 

When observing cell phone use, consider its use in the following settings:

Relationships. Consider if you are becoming a non-participant in a group conversation. For example, this summer while visiting my parent’s cabin, my brother was using his smart phone when we were out on the lake in a boat. In this instance I observed that he was physically present, but not actively participating in the conversation. This example illustrates how an individual can become a passive member of a conversation and become excluded from the group interaction. In these instances minimal eye contact and response cues contribute to being excluded from the conversation. 

Classroom Setting. Cell phone use in a classroom setting can be distracting. Students may text under their desks when they know the instructor has a no cell phone use policy established in the syllabus. In other instances, students keep their phones on their desks and fidget with them. Even more extreme is a student leaving class to take a cell phone call in the hall. This technology can be a distraction in a classroom and may interfere with the expectations for the learning environment. As a “learner” in this context, cell phone use can impede your ability to process the information and be mindful. Cell phone users should follow the guidelines established by the school and the instructor. If your cell phone use is not relevant to the work that is being done in the class, it should not be used.

Public Setting. Have you ever observed two people sitting across from each other at a restaurant, not talking, yet looking down at their cell phones? Are there instances when individuals use their cell phones to “look busy” or fidget with their cell phones in order to avoid potentially awkward interactions or silences, such as when getting a hair cut? Cell phone users should consider their motivation for using a mobile device in a public setting. Users should consider if the conversation or text message can wait until they are in a private setting.

In addition to noticing cell phone use in a variety of settings, consider the connections to communication competence. Is the cell phone use appropriate and effective? Floyd outlines five characteristics of communication competence. 

Self-awareness. When it comes to cell phone use are you a high self-monitor or a low self-monitor? For example, a student stated in a paper, “One of my friends, Sam, had a cool story that he wanted to tell me so he sat down next to me and began telling me. About half way through the story his phone went off and he looked down and took the text. I thought that this was a little strange because he was in the middle of telling me HIS story and for him just to stop in the middle of it was weird.” In this instance the storyteller interrupted his own story to read a text message. 

Adaptability. One of my students reported about being asked not to take any cell phone calls while at the dentist. She wrote, “I found it interesting when she said people text during dentist appointments. I feel like that is inappropriate. People should be able to be away from their phone for a half hour. Then, when she told me people try to talk on their phones while the dentist has his or her hands in your mouth was even more shocking!” When is cell phone use inappropriate for the setting? Are you able to adapt your cell phone use depending on the context?

Empathy. Empathic communication is appropriate when trying to understand another person’s experiences. Does the cell phone use violate the expectation to be fully attentive in the interaction and focus on what the other person is saying and feeling? Is the cell phone use a barrier when listening to the other person’s story or experiences? Cell phone use should not inhibit our ability to be attentive and engage in empathic communication. 

Cognitive Complexity. For example, I recently told a student to stop texting in class during a class discussion. She told me after class that she was looking at a text from her mom. Her mom was texting her about her sister’s health. The student offered a sincere apology for looking at her cell phone and responding to her mom’s text message during class. In this instance I did not consider a wide range of possibilities for why my student would be texting in class. I immediately assumed that the student was being disrespectful and rude. I perceived her negatively and became defensive. Considering alternative possibilities for the student’s cell phone use would have illustrated cognitive complexity. 

Ethics. Does the cell phone use violate a guideline for what is right or wrong? My student, Amy, reported about observing another co-worker text while working at a daycare. She wrote “I think she could have definitely adapted to the situation rather than focus on things going on outside of work. Although I’m not sure what the text conversation was about, it most likely was something that could have waited for a few hours until she was off work, or even until she had a break and wasn’t around the kids and other staff members.” Because of the setting and the manager’s policy against cell phone use when caring for the children at the daycare, the employee’s cell phone could be considered a violation of what is right and viewed as unethical. 

In summary, consider the setting of the cell phone use the connections to communication competence provides insight into our everyday interactions and relationships. 

About the author (s)

Elizabeth Tolman

South Dakota State University

Associate Professor