19 Oct 2022

The Globetrotter's Guide to Mobiles

Latest figures reveal that 83 per cent of the global population owns a smartphone, an astonishing 6.648 billion users. Mobile phones are an omnipresent fact of modern life, but a whistlestop tour around the globe soon reveals that attitudes to mobile manners vary dramatically from place to place.

Generally, in countries that place a strong emphasis on collective norms of behaviour, mobiles are treated with a certain amount of circumspection, and there is a consensus about inappropriate use that may be strictly enforced. These standards become much less rigid in countries where communication and relationships (business, familial and social) are highly valued and prioritised.

Travellers beware: your own mobile manners may well be found wanting in some countries and could cause you social embarrassment. On the other hand, there are places in the world where you will need to be extremely tolerant, as you may well find local mobile manners are astonishingly lax and easy-going. When it comes to travelling abroad, forewarned is forearmed, so it is always a good idea to research any idiosyncrasies before you set off on your travels.

We’ve taken a look at a selection of countries, highlighting the range of customs and etiquette that has evolved around this new technology:


Talking on a mobile phone (keitai) while riding a bus or train is frowned upon, and messages asking passengers not to make calls and to switch their phones to silent mode are played frequently. If you transgress, you may find that fellow passengers appeal to the guard, who will firmly explain that using your phone is not allowed. This rule extends beyond public transport; it is considered impolite to talk on the phone in almost any public space. In Japan turning off the ringer on your phone is referred to as putting the phone into ‘manners mode’. If you are going to play video games, watch movies or listen to music on your phone, you must use headphones.

Because of these restrictions, texting is extremely popular. The very large sets of characters and icons available on Japanese mobiles provide a texting shorthand and emoticons are omnipresent. Walking the streets of Japanese cities amongst oblivious texters has become increasingly hazardous and a cause for concern; the new unwritten rule is that you step aside when looking at your phone.


People in India are enthusiastic users of mobiles, and are quick to answer theirs whatever the circumstances, e.g. hushed theatres or business meetings. They tend to be audible and voluble communicators, and you will often hear loud Bollywood music played over phone speakers (no headphones) in Indian streets. There is a cacophony of different ringtones, which can be very intrusive. They are also compulsive texters, and their focus on their phones leads to many accidents on crowded city streets.


In China it is always acceptable to answer the phone, even if you’re in a business meeting or a restaurant. If you don’t answer, the caller will ring repeatedly until you do – voicemail is not widely used. Those that are higher up the pecking order answer their phones completely unapologetically and make no attempt to lower their voice; more lowly employees, or students in a classroom, might be inclined to hunch down and whisper, or cup their hand over the phone.


Moroccans call their friends on their mobile phones but hang up before it is answered so that the number registers on the recipient’s phone. Called a ‘beep aliyah’, it is a simple and free way of telling someone you are thinking about them. Sending one in return is appropriate.


Egyptians will give out their mobile number at the slightest opportunity. People will solicit your number and will then call you to find out how you are, if you have arrived at your destination and so on, simply as an act of hospitality. If you miss the call, they will expect you to call back. Be prepared for calls with Egyptians on mobiles to be a protracted exchange of pleasantries, with thanks to God for good health and status. It may be several minutes before the actual topic of the call is broached, and it is considered rude not to give the phone your complete attention.


In Spain, it is considered rude not to answer your mobile, whatever the situation, and it is not usual to leave voicemails. Phone calls are answered on public transport, in restaurants and even in business meetings. It is also quite common to mix mobile and face-to-face conversations, with everyone listening in and contributing.


Italians have a reputation for being voluble, and this chattiness has certainly carried over into the world of mobiles (called ‘telefonini’ in Italian). Italians chat compulsively on their phones and are never reticent about answering calls in public situations or even business meetings. Voicemail is not much used, but if you do leave a message be sure to keep it short and to the point.


The French are generally aware of the impact that mobile phones have on others, and it is considered rude to speak too loudly into the phone in public. Using a phone on public transport or in restaurants is frowned upon.


Germans are very respectful of rules about switching off mobiles (which they call ‘handy’) in public places and may complain aggressively if there are any transgressions. In both the Netherlands and Germany it is considered good manners to give your name when you answer the phone (rather than just saying ‘Hello’). This custom persists even when using mobile phones with a caller display.


Israelis tend to answer their phones, even in awkward circumstances (at a wedding, in a synagogue, at a meeting), if only to tell the caller that they can’t talk and will ring back. They do not tend to screen mobile phone calls by using voicemail. Of course, this means that they will rarely leave a voice message. It is therefore a good idea to text first explaining who you are, and then follow up with a call.        


When Brazilians make phone calls, the caller often asks ‘who is this’ at the outset, even if he/she initiated the call. Brazilians love to chat, so phone conversations can be animated and prolonged. Not answering your mobile is considered rude, and Brazilians will frequently excuse themselves from meetings or restaurants, or even theatres, to do so; leaving the phone to go to voicemail is quite uncommon. Phone reception in Brazil is notoriously unreliable, so the Brazilians may make noises of acknowledgement throughout the conversation. This is not meant to interrupt the other speaker, merely to reassure them that the line is still open.


Mexicans are inveterate mobile phone users and carry them wherever they go. On arriving in a restaurant, it is quite normal to immediately put your phone on the table, next to your place setting. It is also quite acceptable to answer your mobile wherever you are. Mexicans will spend hours every day chatting on their phones. It is customary to text your Mexican hosts after an evening out to confirm that you have arrived home safely.


Americans have no problems using mobile phones in open spaces, or on public transport, but feel that they should be switched off in libraries, theatres, cinemas and churches. Most Americans would think it rude to interrupt a family dinner, a meal in a restaurant or a business meeting to take a mobile phone call. However, increasingly, mobile phone use is evident in all these contexts, especially amongst the younger social media-using generation, and there is much debate about desirable mobile phone manners. Texting is now becoming the preferred American method of mobile phone communication; it is obviously less intrusive than speaking, but still distracting.

For more information and advice on international etiquette, sign up to Debretts.com.


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