Elgan: Dispatch from the war over cell phones

Can't we all just get along? A humble proposal for a new cell-phone etiquette

When is it OK to talk in public? To have an audible ring tone? To reply to a text message? Rational people disagree -- strongly. As the war between these two tribes grinds on, new battlefields are opened.

Airline authorities abroad have granted air carriers permission to allow passengers to make and receive calls with their own cell phones in flight. By the end of 2008, passengers in France, Turkey, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and other countries will be chatting away at cruising altitude on every flight.

The news prompted Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to write legislation banning in-flight calls, even though nobody is even talking about allowing calls on domestic flights in the U.S. DeFazio is pandering to clear public opposition to the use of cell phones on airplanes in the U.S. My own prediction is that by 2010, in-flight cell-phone calls will become commonplace around the world but will remain banned in the land of the free.

Passengers are divided even abroad in countries that now allow it. Some see it as progress, others fear constant in-flight chatter.

As a compromise, Australia and New Zealand will allow SMS texting, but not voice cell calls.

Airplanes are the latest battlefield, but most forms of public transportation are contentious. French, German, Danish and Finnish railways have designated phone-free zones on trains. But Sweden dumped similar phone-free zones on trains and buses less than one year after establishing them. People realized how useful their travel time was to catch up on calls.

In the war over cell phones, only one fact is clear: Universally agreeable rules are nowhere in sight.

The trouble with cell phone etiquette

Yahoo HotJobs' annual virtual workplace survey, published this week, queried respondents about which cell-phone behaviors are rudest. Here are the five actions deemed most offensive (in order from most to least):

  1. Accepting a personal call while in a meeting or presentation

  2. Answering the phone or e-mails while at a business dinner
  3. Talking on the phone while in the bathroom
  4. Talking on the phone while in close quarters (such as on a train, plane or bus)
  5. Answering a work call or e-mail during personal time after work hours

But these apparent consensus-based rules of thumb don't even come close to addressing all the situations where using a cell phone is or is not acceptable.

A few weeks ago, I found myself working at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. Two men came in and sat down in the upstairs seating area. They immediately opened their laptops, dialed their cell phones and proceeded to make a long series of business calls for the next three hours. Their calls were loud; they were practically shouting. Incredibly, nobody in the Starbucks minded at all.

I'm quite certain that the exact same behavior in many Starbucks stores across the country would have been met with dirty looks and complaints. But not there. I don't care what rules are applied and by whom, you're never going to get New Yorkers to always speak in hushed tones or do business only in private. (When Rudolph Giuliani tried to enforce jaywalking rules in Manhattan, he was almost laughed out of office. Public cell-phone talking is like that.)

I'd be willing to bet, however, that the acceptability of loud public cell-phone calls varies by borough, neighborhood and even street within New York itself. For example, it's definitely OK to yak away in public in lower Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and anywhere in Midtown. It's probably not OK in the West Village, Staten Island, the Upper East Side and elsewhere.

South of San Francisco, in Silicon Valley, it's quite acceptable to use a cell phone anytime, anywhere, as long as it's for business. But personal calls are frowned upon. North of San Francisco, in Marin County, personal calls are OK, as long as you keep them short and aren't too loud, but business calls are frowned upon.

It also varies by person. My own dad carries a cell phone strictly for emergencies. He won't give anyone the number. When he sees a public cell-phone conversation, it seems to him like rude behavior. My own kids, who grew up with cell phones, don't see public cell-phone conversations as rude at all and make and receive calls and text messages like they're bodily functions.

People talk about cell-phone etiquette as if it's possible to establish simple rules that apply to all situations. In fact, geographical, cultural, generational and situational variations make fair and reasonable rules hard to come by.

Every time I write about cell phone usage on, say, airplanes and other forms of public transportation, I always get lots of e-mail from people who express some variation on the following two notions:

  1. "I don't want to hear other people's conversations."
  2. "It's wrong for people to be available and connected 24/7. People should be able to survive for a few hours without yakking on the phone."

Irritation with public cell-phone loudmouths and annoying ring tones builds up, and when given the opportunity -- such as when responding to a cell phone-happy columnist -- many people unleash that frustration in a tirade of denunciations that feels like moral clarity and common sense. Unfortunately, it's not so simple. Human psychology is the complicating factor.

General theory of relative cell phone irritation

I have a theory about what makes public cell-phone calls irritating. I've noticed that in a crowded room, where pretty much everyone is talking, a cell-phone call within earshot is much more problematic than in-person conversations. People think cell calls tend to be louder. But I've noticed more irritation at quieter cell calls than people feel at louder in-person conversations. It's usually not voice volume that annoys us. It's something else.

My theory is that evolution has prepared us to constantly hear other people's conversations, to be comfortable with them and even crave them. To be in a restaurant where people are talking is pleasurable for people. Our brains can simultaneously ignore and monitor these conversations. If one conversation turns to an interesting subject, we automatically eavesdrop.

For example, we don't notice when someone at the table next to ours says, "my husband had a knee-replacement operation last year." But suddenly we tune in when someone says, "my husband had a sex-change operation last year." The person they say it to might respond with something like, "Oh ... my ... God."

However, when someone is talking on the phone, we hear only half the conversation. We hear only, "Oh ... my ... God" and don't know what the person is responding to. This annoys us because we have to hear the noise generated by a person's vocal chords without being privy to the juicy details of their conversation. In other words, the potential for eavesdropping is an evolutionary, hardwired compensation for putting up with other people's chatter. With cell-phone calls, we get the noise without the compensation, and that's why it irritates us.

I suspect that most people will reject this theory because nobody likes eavesdropping. But my detractors will have to explain why people leave their quiet homes to actively seek out places where everyone is talking -- restaurants, bars, coffee houses, etc. -- then complain when someone is having a phone conversation.

My "general theory of relative cell-phone irritation" also explains why people yammer away in public oblivious to the irritation they're causing. To people on the phone, it's just a conversation. It doesn't "feel" rude, because the talker hears both sides. Other people's public cell-phone calls feel loud and rude, but our own calls don't.

Based on this theory, I'd like to propose a small set of simple rules of etiquette for using cell phones in public:

  1. Never subject anyone to half a conversation. If they can't hear the whole conversation, they shouldn't be forced to hear half of it. If your half of the conversation won't be heard (the room is noisy or you speak quietly), then it's OK to talk in public.
  2. Treat cell-phone calls and text messages like cigarettes. If your phone rings while you're talking with someone, ask the other people the cell phone equivalent of, "Mind if I smoke?" If you think it might bother someone, take the call outside.
  3. Treat texting like reading a magazine. You wouldn't start reading a magazine in the middle of a one-on-one conversation. To pull your attention away from a person you're talking with to chat with someone else via SMS is usually rude. Either involve the person in all aspects of the chat, telling them what is being said, or respond later.
  4. Never let 'em hear your ring tone. Set your phone to vibrate only, or vibrate before ringing. Nobody wants to hear your annoying ring tone.
  5. Follow the "When in Rome" rule. Ignore the above four rules when the situation allows. For example, in a Midtown Manhattan Starbucks or a Silicon Valley Peet's, toss these rules out the window and do as you please (like the "Romans" do). But whenever in doubt, err on the side of politeness.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Elgan at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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