TCS Daily

Beyond Cell Phone Etiquette

By John Stone - November 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Was a time I used to enjoy a nice train journey. I'd settle by a window, open a book or newspaper, or simply gaze at the scenery rushing by -- the projects, or the Hudson, the rolling hills dotted with sheep, Bremen, Kichijoji, Malaga, Bassano del Grappa or perhaps Long Island. There'd be the comforting sound of the conductor's voice announcing the next station, sporadic conversations ebbing and flowing in the distance, occasionally the blow of a whistle or horn, but above all the lulling whir of train on tracks, that moaning of metal like a relentless keening or drum riff, a drone as predictable as silence that would drown out the world and send me to vivid sleep.


All that is gone, seemingly forever, along with the (potential) pleasure of concerts, bus rides, eating anything anywhere in public, walking down the street, riding elevators, sitting on the beach, strolling out of doors, waiting for a dental appointment (or any appointment), taking a taxi, standing on line at the airport or bank or post office or DMV, standing in file while awaiting the chance to "deplane," talking with friends, purchasing anything in a store, attending solemn or festive ceremonies, watching anything in a theater, or sitting on a park bench. The nemesis proliferates like a cancer: cell phones. Yes, some of these activities are plainly awful already. But all are immeasurably worsened by the three evils of mobile technology: the ring, the unwanted private "conversation," and the potential ring.


The ring sends a shockwave of minor panic throughout the public locale: Is that my phone? Whose phone is it? If it is my phone, who is calling me? If it's not my phone, should someone be calling me, or should I be calling someone this very instant? To help alleviate some of this angst, cell phone makers have foisted upon the hearing universe "unique" ring styles: elaborate and sonic bird chirps, "classical" tunes that annunciate one's individuality and carefree sense of humor, or Nokia's 13-note atonal calling card. Of course, there are enough of the slightly different rings so that each one signals to the alleged perpetrator that it is his phone's alarum, even when it is a stranger's. Any way you slice it, whether it's your phone or someone else's, these rings are random, unpredictable sword slices into the tenuous flesh of public space.


Many rings gradually increase in volume until their phones get answered as though screaming the urgency of the caller's needs or admonishing the owner for their dallying. Indeed, many people pack their phones away in purses, satchels, or hard-to-access cases. Even the shortest-lasting ring is a slap in the face of all within earshot. When people finally answer their cell phones, then truly we can say the public space is burst open in as many places as there are one-sided conversations. Suddenly, the environment oozes with the pollution of private chatter, the un-divine comedy of other people's existence forced into our ears and consciousness. Many people have become so inured to this violation, they not only tolerate it but intermittently add their voices to the chorus of blather formerly relegated to phone booths, bedrooms, offices and private patios.


A curious but very real by-product of cell phone rings and chatter is the virtual or potential noise these awaken in public spaces, especially those where cell phones are most taboo. Because phones have gone off during concerts (many a time and over many a concert), there is always now the distinct possibility that one or two may go off in present and future ones. Having sat through slow movements of solo keyboard recitals punctured by the ridiculous squeal of an electronic Fur Elise or Rondo a la Turca, I can never watch anything on stage again with innocence and total absorption. There is always the distant, numb anxiety (fed by sad experience) that the scene of the crime will be repeated.


I am not a Luddite; I rather like my own cell phone and use it with some frequency. There is no going back to the "innocent" time before cell phones, which anyway wasn't so innocent. I've read a number of "cell phone etiquette" prescriptions, some containing salient points, but find them for the most part too lenient. Herewith, my "modest proposal" for cell phone use in public space:


1) No ring tones of any kind in public. Instead, always use vibrate alerts. If necessary, replace your phone with the kind that clips to your belt so that vibrate mode is always an option.


2) Turn phones off completely before entering all houses of worship, classrooms and theaters. Set for vibrate or silent in restaurants, meetings, etc., but don't answer unless it is possible to whisper and no one is in the midst of conversing with you "in real life."


3) Don't talk while driving unless using a headset. Even then, be extremely considerate to anyone else within earshot, to the point of abject apology.


4) Never talk loudly near people whether you know them or not. Find a remote spot; if this proves impossible, whisper in deep abjection and near shame, always looking around furtively to ensure no one is staring at you. Ideally, cup your free hand over your mouth as if you might be spreading diseases with each word.


5) When spending "quality time" with friends and family, try not to respond to calls, or even look to see who is calling, unless you are expecting an important one. For that matter, don't interrupt the moment to make a call, unless it can't wait until later.


6) Keep all conversations as brief as possible.


7) Avoid at all costs speaking on intimate or hygiene-related topics (even in a whisper).


8) If you must talk while walking (e.g. down the street), do so observing the abject whisper rule; furthermore, don't use hands-free headsets (even if it is true they help prevent brain cancer, etc.), because such people look insane and/or brash. Above all, keep alert of where you are going and do not gesticulate.


9) Consider the holding of private conservations in public as a fluke of technology and as a morally suspect privilege. In other words, never feel entitled to speak about anything in a stranger's presence; your words are so much noise pollution to be controlled, regulated and hushed.


10) Adults: please help yourselves first, and once your mask is fitted properly over your face, assist children and teenagers.


John Stone last wrote for TCS about industrial technology and art.


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