December 23, 2004

Shut up shuttin' up!

(Guest post by Steve Gigl)

Scott McGerik, possibly in response to this Strib editorial (or the recent discussion over the FAA considering allowing cell phone use on airplanes), explains why people might be overstating a perceived lack of mobile phone etiquette in our society today. His basic rule of thumb, which makes a lot of sense to me, is this:

My thought is that if a face-to-face conversation is socially permissible in a given situation or location, a technology-mediated conversation is also permitted.

I heard a different tune this week from Dennis Prager, who openly stated that he would engage in civil disobedience against anyone next to him on a plane that used a cell phone.

My own opinion lies somewhere in between those two, as illustrated by considering a couple of Scott's points:

A frequent complaint is that people talking on mobile phones are loud. Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not.
But they often are. My experience is that some people are loud on cellphones, and others aren't. And I suspect from my own cell phone use that it might have as much to do with the phone as it does with the person. Some phones -- and I suspect the shorter, non-flip phones like mine are a large portion of them -- simply do not return the feedback of the speaker's voice to the ear the way we expect them to. Since we don't hear our voice through the speaker, we ramp up the volume until we do (at which point we are SPEAKING QUITE LOUDLY).

As such, I think that a lot of people raise their volume when they talk on cellphones. And loud-talkers on cell phones seem more prevalent than, er, "free-range" loud-talkers, which is why so many people (including me on occasion) complain about loud mobile phone conversations.

I'm with Scott in that I don't buy the complaint that it's "confusing or distracting" to hear half of a conversation. Us office-dwellers hear that all the time, and it's fairly easily tuned out. The same is true about ringing cell phones in the office; the other phones ring more often and are usually louder. The cutesy ring tones can get irritating after a while, but that's a matter of taste more than anything.

Another of Scott's points:

At a restaurant, I figure that ringing cell phones are generally acceptable assuming that the people at the table are accepting of them.

I'd say it depends on the restaurant. If the restaurant is a nice quiet one and you wouldn't raise your voice or laugh uproariously without attracting unwelcome attention, then I would say the cellphones should be just as quiet regardless of what the people at your table think.

Scott goes on to suggest that a movie theater is not a good place for a mobile phone conversation, something with which many people (but obviously not enough, or we wouldn't have anything to complain about) would agree.

Some have opined that because mobile phones are so new, users have not learned proper etiquette. I assume the opposite, namely, that others have not learned to tune out mobile phone-mediated conversations and other mobile phone related distractions.

I'm of the opinion that both are true. There are clearly some people who don't bother to think about what their loud conversation is revealing about themselves, let alone how they are impacting those around them. And there are others -- and I would include myself on this one -- who still aren't used to having people talking on the phone in certain situations.

Either way, the first cellphone company to include subvocal microphones as an accessory is probably going to win a Nobel Prize (the Peace prize, for keeping people like the anonymous Strib editorialist from committing cellphone rage).

Posted by at December 23, 2004 07:11 AM | TrackBack

My first encounter with bad cell phone ettiquette came several years ago when I was in retail. One of the rules of working the information desk was that the live customer took precedence over the phone caller. If the phone rings when you have a live one before you, let someone else get the phone. If you are already on the phone and have to put the caller on hold, and there is someone waiting at your desk, take care of them before getting back to the caller. Well, one day, I was helping a lady with a question when her cell phone rang and she turned around to take the call. Other customers were waiting; do I take the next person, and risk the wrath of the first one? Or do I apologize to the people in line and patiently wait for my customer to finish her call (hopefully quickly)? Then, during Christmas shopping season, I realized that a multitide of people were standing in the store talking on what were essentially Star Trek communicators, whether they realized it or not. I half-expected to hear someone say "Beam me up!" at that point. It seemed a world gone mad.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Now I work at a library. It is not a public library, but a university campus library; or, as one of my colleagues put it, "This is NOT a 'shoosh' library!" Still, there are quiet study areas reserved for undisturbed research. Three years ago, we surveyed patrons to find out how we could improve their experiences here. Instead of something library-specific, the overwhelming response was "too many people talking loudly on cell phones". That could have happened anywhere. Soon afterwards, the Director announced that cell phone use was banned in the library, with the exception of stairwells and the front lobby. Anything else would be considered "unauthorized cell phone use" and the cell phoner would be asked to leave the building. Signs are posted all around the inside of the building to remind patrons of this fact.

Ironically, I am required to carry a work-issued cell phone with me when I am on duty, and the phone often rings in the banned areas. Part of me takes delight in being able to get away with something forbidden, but I am conscious of the fact that others in the vicinity can't use their phones, and that they need the quiet, so I answer the phone quickly and move to a "safe" area.

If I had my own cell phone (which I do not), I would show the same courtesy that I do at work. Too bad so many others can't police themselves the same way.

Posted by: Dave in Pgh. at December 23, 2004 08:09 AM

I take a train to work. It is a 45-60 ride. There have been many times a person talks loud on a cellphone the whole trip. It is usually about nothing important. It is quite annoying. If the person had been talking to a hospital emergency room where her child had been taken she would have sympathy. Never had that situation. It is always minor chit chat.

On the train I can get up and move. Sometimes that isn't enough as the person sitting downstairs can be heard upstairs. On a plane on most airlines I would be stuck in place. On the train I just walk on with no hassle. I am on my way home so am feeling pretty good. On the plane I have had to get there early, deal with airport parking, drag my luggage to the checkin where I stand in line waiting for very slow clerks to process every one in front of me, then stand in line for the metal detectors and all that goes with that. After 2 hours getting on a plane I am crowded into a too small seat with a fat woman spilling over the next seat and small children kicking the back of my seat the whole trip. A loud cellphone conversation could be just enough to send a less stable person over the edge.

We don't need that. Just keep the cellphones off the planes.

Posted by: Ron at December 23, 2004 01:30 PM

I'm with Dennis Prager. Sitting waiting for a plane and having to listening to people talk overly loud on cellphones is bad enough. Cell phones on planes will be an absolute nightmare. People simply seem unable to modulate their voices on a cell phone. Allowing them on airplanes is such a bad idea.

Posted by: JamesPh. at December 23, 2004 02:01 PM

I tend to be with Dennis, for the simple reason that as you get larger groups you tend to get more folks further out in the distribution. A group of 4 and you don't get too much volume and you rarely get one to talk too loudly. But get a group of 20 together and the odds of not having someone with a boomingly boisterous voice is pretty low. It's one of the problems of the modern office cubie environment now being exported to all locations.

Posted by: nerdbert at December 23, 2004 11:44 PM

Steve, from what others tell me, I'm living in a fantasy world. That is, mobile phone users near me do not consistently talk louder than desk phone users.

Several years ago, I worked with a Ukrainian woman that would have these loud and terrible arguments over the phone with her parents and siblings. She would yell and scream into the phone, slam the handset back onto the cradel, call her family back, and start all over. She was (to most people in the office) considered a loud and obnoxious person. I always passed off her behavior as resulting from different cultural expectations but her behavior pissed off a lot of people.

Posted by: Scott McGerk at December 27, 2004 09:05 AM

Put me down for the "half a conversation is worse than a full one" theme. I used to hear them all the time (like Ron, on the train), and they were more difficult to deal with a faced-to-face conversation. Sometimes, the annoying cell caller was even two or three seats removed.

I'm usually adverse to the law settling the question of social disputes, but in this case, I'm happy that the law has (to now) made the question moot.

Would an airline voluntarily ban cell phones as a way to capture market share? It's nice to think so, but I doubt it would happen.

Posted by: The PolicyGuy at December 27, 2004 12:19 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?