"My phone is my favorite person." Credit: Thinkstock

What’s interesting about the conclusions the Pew Research Center draws in its latest media survey is that they’re so inconclusive.

Are cell phones making Americans ruder? Maybe, maybe not. What’s rude these days, anyway? The big insight from “Americans’ Views on Social Etiquette,” released Wednesday morning, is that nobody’s sure.

Says Pew, “People are trying to cope with new norms about when it is rude or permissible to use their phones, when they should feel insulted or tolerate phone use by others, and when public spaces should be off-limits to intimate—or loud—phone conversations.” But before we can cope with new norms we need to know what they are. And all Pew can say for certain about that is that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

For instance, when Pew talked to 3,000 adults, 82 percent of them said using cell phones in social situations hurts the conversation. Yes, but 33 percent of them—meaning lots of overlap—said it contributes to the conversation. And when asked if they’d used their phone the last time they were in a social situation, 89 percent said yes.

Why? As we all know, there are lots of reasons—the ones some of us (not all) might call good reasons, and the ones some of us (not all) might call bad ones. Some 45 percent used their phones to post a picture or video of the occasion—which is kind of nice, though not if you were just badgered into coming out onto the sun porch and saying cheese for 20 minutes until all the children happen to smile at once. Yet 16 percent got out their cell phones to get out of the group activity, and 10 percent to avoid the group discussion. Yet the human race has searched for millennia for graceful ways to accomplish these despicable goals.

And apparently age matters. Among people 65 or older, 54 percent said it’s OK to use cell phones on public transportation. Among the 18-to-29 set, 90 percent said it’s OK. As ever, our standards of human decency are largely determined by whether we do it too.