Arts Post-Netiquette

Space-age cell phones, Stone-Age manners

Last month in a little theater outside Houston, an Australian tourist was enjoying a matinee of Brokeback Mountain. Halfway through the film, a cell phone rang. A woman answered it and began talking. Our international friend motioned for her to be quiet, but when the conversationalist ignored her, she reached over and tapped her on the arm to ask her to end the call.

The cell phone user hung up — and called the cops.

Like good taste and a sense of humor, everyone also thinks he or she has great manners. But as our lives become more convenient, we become increasingly self-centered. When politely asking someone to refrain from using their phone in the middle of a quiet movie theater results in an assault charge (ironically, the accuser felt the tap on the arm was “invading her personal space”) it’s obvious no matter how ubiquitous and evolved this new technology has become, the rules of cell-phone etiquette still haven’t caught on.

We have begun to think, “Why not take that call in the theater? It could be important. I’ll make it quick. I’ll whisper. I don’t want to miss anything. No one’s listening. As if when the phone rings its someone else’s prerogative to make us invisible (and inaudible) if we’re disturbing them. If only that were really an option for anyone forced to endure the recap of your latest dental visit or last night’s Southtown binge.

Designer and blogger Jim Coudal has taken matters into his own hands — and you can, too. Coudal created the Society for HandHeld Hushing, or SHHH!, offering printable cards ( you can hand to offending cell-phone users. One of them reads, “Dear cell phone user. We are aware that your ongoing conversation about (fill in the blank) is very important to you, but we thought you’d like to know it doesn’t interest us in the least. In fact, your babbling disregard for others is more than a little annoying.” Another card is more pointed: “THE REST OF US DON’T CARE WHAT HE/SHE SAID TO YOU.” We suggest you have an exit plan after handing over the card.

A more controversial option, still illegal in the United States, is a cell-phone signal blocker. The device jams signals within the area or can be activated to introduce “natural atmosphere” to fade out any calls currently being conducted. The jammer remains anonymous. Although call blockers present an ethical problem for the consumer market (according to Wise Geek, more than 100,000 emergency calls are made from cell phones every day), the FCC is currently debating their use in some public places.

It’s easier to simply learn the basic rule of polite cell-phone usage: People should have the option of not listening to you. Which means the more trapped or enclosed the space, such as on public transportation or in an elevator, the less appropriate it is for you to take the call. Any venue where people may have come, and even paid money, to enjoy an experience that relies on an atmosphere of imagination and illusion that would be ruined by your private conversation is also off-limits: movie theaters, churches, observatories, musical venues, lecture halls, and museums.

Real people and face-to-face conversations should always take precedence over mobile ones. It’s rude to interrupt a social engagement with a friend or guest to attend to business unrelated to the present company. If you are expecting an emergency call, let your guests know at the start of the evening.

If you must take a call in a public place, move away from people. Restaurants in New York City have begun installing cell-phone booths where the pay-phone bank used to be, to help remind diners not to take calls at the table. The “10-foot proximity rule” applies here — any closer and strangers are subject to your mundane personal business.

But if the general public must listen to you, do what you can to not annoy them. Keep a normal ring tone — not “La Cucaracha,” not “My Humps,” not Beethoven’s “Fifth,” not your toddler telling you he loves you. Better yet, set your phone to vibrate and keep it within immediate reach, or turn it off. Keep your call short and let the caller know you’ll get back to them when you can get some privacy.

No bad connection is made better by your shouting into the phone. Keep the tone of your voice low, even, and unemotional. Think about the subject of your call. Fighting with spouses, discussing intimate medical procedures, and leaking confidential company information are some of the worst offenses.

A last word of advice: Text messaging is silent and unobtrusive. With predictive text available, its as fast as talking for even the clumsiest fingers. And you can’t text and drive.

By Leigh Baldwin

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