This fall, Yale is teaching etiquette. Distressed by what they consider students’ poor cell phone manners, residential college masters have held meetings, sent e-mails, and even resorted to table tents in the new campaign for common courtesy. In recent weeks, residential colleges have implemented new policies asking students to limit their cell phone use in dining halls, libraries and shared college spaces.
We think these new policies are right on target — if not painfully obvious. But while such regulations certainly can’t hurt, we believe that it is cell phone users themselves who need to reform, not college policies.
Last week the Saybrook College Council approved a new cell phone policy for the college. The new regulations prohibit cell phone use in the Saybrook library and requests that students keep their phones on silent — rather than vibrate — when in the library. In the dining hall, students have been asked to set their phones’ to either the silent or vibrate mode and to take any incoming calls into the common room. Masters in other colleges have also begun to crack down on cell phone use in college common spaces, especially in dining halls.
These are valid policies, and the masters’ guidelines are sound. But the very need for such common-sense rules is indicative of the real problem; if students had better etiquette, we wouldn’t need rules in the first place. While we might all agree cell phones in the middle of “Cold War” is disruptive, some students fail to recognize that a phone set to vibrate that rattles across a wood tabletop in the library is equally obnoxious. And even fewer seem to realize how disruptive a cell phone chat in the dining hall can be. We all have that one friend who takes calls in the middle of a meal, leaving everyone else at the table chewing their chicken tempura in awkward silence until the oblivious gabber decides to hang up.
We are glad the masters, at least, have begun to recognize how dining hall phone calls can disrupt the sense of community. But the residential college community extends beyond students. We’ve all seen the students who stroll into the dining hall so engrossed in their private phone conversations that they swipe in, serve themselves, and sit down without ever even acknowledging the dining hall employees who swipe their cards or prepare their food. Such behavior is not merely disruptive — it is disrespectful. Regardless of what students are actually discussing, when they choose phone conversations over real conversations, all they manage to communicate is that the people who are physically around them are unimportant.
We recognize that even the most stringent of policies is unlikely to prove the ultimate solution to the problem cell phones create. But college masters are charged with the somewhat nebulous task of creating community, and ensuring the dining hall is a place that fosters that community is a natural extension of their job. Of course, some people seem to manage to talk on their phones in public without being obtrusive. But until everyone on campus has mastered the art of common courtesy, we are glad to see the residential colleges doing something to try to teach it.