Is It OK To Use a Cellphone in Church? Pew Surveys the New Etiquette

The Pew Research Center has pubished a new report on cellphone etiquette. If you’ve ever wondered whether your fellow Americans are judging you for talking on your phone in public, or checking baseball scores during a party, or texting in a movie theater, then this report has the answers you crave.

Pew surveyed more than 3,000 adults about their cellphone behavior (stuff like “How often do you carry your cellphone with you?”), and about their feelings toward the behavior of their fellow citizens (for example, “How often do you encounter people using their cellphone in a loud or annoying manner in public?”).

For those of us who enjoy thinking about religion, custom, technology, and culture, the report offers two insights–one about religious services, and one about the difficulties of studying etiquette through surveys.

It’s “Generally Not OK,” But…

One part of the Pew study asked respondents to gauge the appropriateness of using cellphones in various places, including whether it is “generally okay or not okay for people to use their cellphones…at church or [a] worship service.” A full 96% of those surveyed chose “generally not okay,” which was slightly higher than those who condemn mobile use in movie theaters.

This finding indicates not only that the secular chambers of the cinema still don’t command quite the respect of Good Old Fashioned Faith—but also that the Pew methodology may be a bit out of whack.

I make that latter point based on my recent experiences in church—which are myriad, because while I may be a Jew, I am also a religion reporter. If you haven’t seen it yourself, trust me: people in the pews are constantly whipping out their phones in order to look up Bible passages, take notes during sermons, and, perhaps, do other things. Bible apps like YouVersion, which claims close to 200 million downloads, are now a common way to find, say, Matthew 7:5 quickly, instead of having to rifle through a pulp-and-glue book.

It’s possible that some people are hypocrites about phone use in church (cf. Matthew 7:5). But it’s also possible that the question was just confusing.

The problem here is that when Pew asks questions about how people use their cellphones, they’re entering vague territory, because there’s no agreed-upon definition of “use.” I’d wager hard cash that if you asked the exact same question about churches after priming people to think of Bible apps, those opinions would be very different. “Oh, that kind of ‘use’! That’s generally okay.”

From Etiquette to Ethics

This brings us to our second insight, which is that it’s very hard to measure etiquette through a survey.

Our judgments of proper etiquette tend to be subtle, unstated, often subconscious, and context-dependent. Pew researchers built in some wiggle room by affixing the word “generally” to everything—but that doesn’t overcome the basic issue, which is that broad-brush, quantifiable questions can only capture a slice of what’s going on.

Pew is right to consider etiquette something worthy of study, of course. Etiquette is entangled with ethics—basic social norms and judgments pervade our daily interactions with fellow human beings. We pay attention to laws, and to the doctrines and practices of religious groups, but we tend to overlook the role that etiquette plays in our lives.

That’s especially true with digital technology, which has handed us a fast-changing culture to which we’ve responded with a lot of of commenting, speculating, and damn, those kids are all doing x, y, and z on their cellphones, and it’s an outrage! 

Pew’s study of cellphone etiquette gives us one way to begin digging into a much larger set of questions: which norms do we, and should we, place around the use of digital tools? When are these opinions just personal preferences, and when do they take on a more explicit ethical dimension? When should we enforce them?

Part of the problem is that while there’s a lot of cultural criticism about internet and cellphone use, and also reams of hard data, there’s not as much ethnographic work. There’s not that much in-depth, person-to-person reporting, either. Survey questions are good to have. But sometimes you have to dig deeper.