Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Decoding Cell Phone Etiquette

Ask almost anyone, and they'll tell you that cell phone etiquette -- or lack thereof -- is a problem. For that matter, telephone etiquette hasn't been entirely sorted out yet, as encounters with sales clerks and receptionists constantly remind me. It's just that it's harder to escape cell phone users. I'm constantly irritated by some of the inane conversations I hear on the bus or train, or just walking down the street, and sometimes astonished at how some people broadcast some pretty personal details because they forget they're in public. The only thing that appalls me more than obnoxious cell phone callers are those who think they should determine if a call is a waste of time. "If anything characterizes the 21st century, it's our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people," says James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. "The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights." [The emphasis is mine.] That quote is from a New York Times article that ran yesterday on the use of cell phone jammers, which are illegal in the U.S. -- but so small it's near-impossible to enforce the prohibition against them. Why do I emphasize the jammer, and not the obnoxious talker? Because many people who blab loudly on their cell phones don't realize they're doing it. The person using the jammer, on the other hand, makes a conscious decision that the other person's conversation isn't important when they press that button. Or they decide the other person isn't important. Read the article through and you'll notice an interesting bent to the quotes from people jamming: "She was using the word 'like' all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl." "Just watching those dumb teens at the mall get their calls dropped is worth it. Can you hear me now? NO! Good." And perhaps the most telling: "At this point, just knowing I have the power to cut somebody off is satisfaction enough." The same thing happened when I posted about a cheap cell phone jammer last January. I got a flurry of e-mail from people who said they'd love to have one because of -- I'm paraphrasing here -- all the idiots out there. Clearly, these folks don't realize that with or without cell phones, most overheard conversation fragments are inane. But this is hardly a new phenomenon. When cell phone use was more expensive, people were quick to deride mobile talkers as self-important jerks. (Though I once had the pleasure of watching one person trying to act cool with his cell phone get hilariously taken down by the girls he was trying to impress...) Now that cell phones are commonplace, substitute "Bluetooth headset" for "cell phone" and you get the modern complaint. Also see: white earphones (iPod owners), and before that, any hint that you had a Walkman. There's almost always a mix of classism, ageism, and occasionally a tinge of racism in these comments as well. People just need to re-learn the art of being polite. Cell phone users have to realize that not all conversations are appropriate at all times (you know, you can call someone back if you were in the middle of something else), and would-be jammers have to realize that public spaces are just that -- public (would you tell someone to shut up if they were talking to someone sitting next to them, rather than on the phone?). And sometimes a carefully timed tap on the shoulder and a polite reminder can get the job done as well as any $50 jammer.
I don't know that talking on a cell phone is even required to fit the socioeconomic aspect of your theory. I have gotten quite a few putdowns because I have an iPhone. Ironically, one of them was from a salesman at an AT&T franchise store who was bent on selling a customer who wanted an iPhone a Nokia device. (AT&T franchisees are not allowed to sell the iPhone.)

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