A week after Carlos Flores started wearing his new Pebble smartwatch, his friends called him out for being rude. Flores' offense? Continually lifting his arm, craning his neck and reading a stream of messages after his watch buzzed and lit up.
"If you need to be somewhere else, why don't you leave?" he remembers a friend asking pointedly.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Flores, a project manager at a school textbook publisher in Mexico City, was drawn to the Pebble because it promised to help filter all the distractions coming in on his Apple iPhone, including emails from work and Facebook posts from friends.
"I get a lot of notifications, and I'm constantly pulling out my phone," Flores says. And once his phone is out of his pocket, Flores can't help but check email, social media and just about anything else that grabs his attention. "I'm constantly distracted by it."
The Pebble, he reasoned, would keep him informed even with the phone tucked in his pocket. Turns out, he's just as rude with a smartwatch as with a smartphone.
On the plus side, those helpful mobile gadgets handle our mail, phone calls, music, maps and connections to people who matter. But they play havoc on our face-to-face conversations -- our eyes are locked on smartphone screens instead of the people around us. The smartwatch promises to kick that problem into even higher gear, thanks in part to the hype surrounding the Apple Watch. Industry researcher Gartner estimates smartwatch vendors will sell 40 million devices this year, fueled in part by Apple's buzz.
"I call this the new toy problem," says Judith Martin, who writes Miss Manners, the syndicated etiquette column. Too often, people forget the basic rule: "if you use it when you're with other people, you're rude."
It's not like we want to be rude, says Ben Bryant, head of special projects at smartwatch maker Pebble, which works with both Apple and Android phones. "It's a habit we have -- this visceral fear of missing out on something."
Bryant doesn't believe smartwatches up the rude quotient. Unlike smartphones, which can suck you in, smartwatches just require a quick glance for people to see what matters. "No one is mentally disappearing when they look at a smartwatch," he says.
Perhaps -- but not everyone sees it that way. Just ask David Rose, an engineer with Walt Disney Imagineering in Los Angeles, who owns four Pebble smartwatches and switches between them to coordinate with his outfits. People don't respond well to his wrist-worn device.
"On more than one occasion I've been engaged in conversation with someone and they'd speak with me and I'd glance at my wrist," says Rose. "And they'd say, 'Sorry for taking your time.' When that happens more than once, you realize this is an issue."
No clear signs
In the 18th century, the French court handed out signs to visitors telling them how to act before royalty. That practice gave rise to the word etiquette, which comes from the French words for "label" and "ticket."
Too bad there aren't any clear signs for today's social interactions. In 2005, the Associated Press with IPSOS-Public Affairs polled people on whether they'd encountered others using their cell phones in a loud or annoying manner; 85 percent said they had. Tellingly, almost everyone thought it was the other guy who was rude. Only 8 percent of respondents admitted they had been rude with their phone; 1 percent said they weren't sure.
It's only gotten worse, say critics.
It's common, for example, to see smartphones nestled next to a plate during lunch in San Francisco's financial district. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and creator of the first Web browser, says it's gotten so bad his lunch mates now stack their phones together. The first to grab for a phone has to buy everyone else's meal. (Andreessen says he hopes an Apple Watch will help him cheat by letting him sneak a glance at notifications.)
That's one way to revise the rules of etiquette.
"Our ideas about etiquette are constantly being challenged," says Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont. The institute's namesake was famous for writing about etiquette in the 1920s. Many of the issues she tackled still apply today, says Senning.
Back then, one of the most pressing questions about technology was whether telephones would destroy the family as they knew it by interrupting dinners and encouraging people to spend less time together. Spoiler alert: civilization did, in fact, survive.
Today's society has responded to all the beeping and buzzing around us by creating new rules. Religious centers, performance halls and movie theaters usually ask patrons to silence their phones and to stop texting. Art galleries ask visitors to please not snap photos. And museums are increasingly banning selfie-sticks, lest we lose our balance and crash into a priceless Monet.
If society didn't do all this, the worst of us would behave badly.
"What any technology does is put a microscope onto anyone's behavior and magnify it," says Jodi R.R. Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting for businesses and executives. "For people with poor social skills, technology only makes them poorer."
Martin says people should follow a basic rule, no matter what they're doing. "It's rude to ignore people you're with, whether you do it by closing your eyes and daydreaming or with the latest version of the $17,000 watch."
The trouble is, ignoring the glowing screen and buzzing messages on our phones and watches is hard -- really hard. Just ask Rose, the man with four Pebble smartwatches.
"My wife knows I get emails, and I have to glance from time to time," he says. "But she would be happier if I didn't."
This story appears in the summer edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.
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