Shut up! And shut off that stupid cell phone

Courtesy: Mobile phones are fun and convenient -- if you're the one talking. Learn when you should spare the rest of us.

July 19, 1999|By Jennifer Oldham | Jennifer Oldham,Los Angeles Times

Mobile phones make it easy to reach out and touch someone. From the grocery store. The commuter train. A public restroom. Or even a wedding.

Once a status symbol, mobile phones have become a necessity for millions of Americans. Like many new technologies when they move into the mainstream, there are no social norms dictating how and where to use a mobile phone.

And it shows.

Second-hand cell phone conversations are fast replacing second-hand smoke as public enemy No. 1 in crowded venues. Fed up with customers with phones attached to their ears, restaurants, theaters, colleges and even churches have taken steps to ban mobile phone use. Those who ignore the new policies face the wrath of other patrons and often are asked to conduct their conversation outside.

"Whenever someone's cell phone would ring, 18 sets of eyes would roll in their sockets," says famed restaurateur Danny Meyer, who has asked patrons to turn off their mobile phones in the four restaurants he co-owns in New York City. "A lot of people were being downright rude and showy and talking way over the crowd."

Patrons at New York's popular Union Square Cafe are greeted with signs that read, "Please 86 all cell phone use in the dining room."

Mobile phones have become as common as day planners for busy Americans. There are 76 million mobile phone users in the United States -- that's up about 300 percent from 19 million in 1994, according to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association. And the number is expected to grow at a rate of 25 percent a year as more people take advantage of offers of free phones and minutes.

But with any time-anywhere communication comes the inevitable backlash. Call them the mobile phone etiquette pioneers, the brave souls who have dared to suggest that being tethered to the world 24 hours a day might not be a good idea.

The quandary over the correct way to use a mobile phone mimics break-in periods for other technologies. Take the transistor radio. This hand-held music receiver evolved into the enormous boombox, which people played in public at increasing decibel levels. To stem abuse, the consumer electronics industry devised a solution: Sony's Walkman. Wireless carriers are reaching to find similar solutions for cell phone abuse, including call waiting, voice mail, and vibrating alerts rather than ringers.

But intrusive cell phone usage may not be the result of cheaper technology so much as the overall demise of common courtesy in the United States.

"This is one part of a larger patchwork of behavior that shows disrespect for the value of public space and public discourse and sense of community in favor of celebration of oneself," said Jim Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University and author of "Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life."

Even those who make the rules have a tough time following them. Terrence O'Brien, artistic director for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, asked an actor to warn the audience that cell phones and beepers should be turned off during the opening production of "Twelfth Night" last month.

Then, in the middle of an impassioned speech by Orsino, someone's phone went off. Irate, O'Brien glanced around the crowd, only to discover the offender was himself.

Lawmakers in 13 states have introduced bills that would outlaw talking on a phone in a vehicle, or would require a driver to use a hands-free phone. New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission enacted a provision, which went into effect July 1, requiring its 93,000 drivers to park their cars before making a call.

"This was a public safety issue. We were getting a lot of complaints from passengers that taxi drivers were on their cell phones from the moment they got in the cab and were still on it 50 blocks later," said Diane McGrath-McKechnie, the commission's chairwoman.

Concerned that the trend to curb mobile phone use could harm their business, many wireless carriers are trying to educate customers about how to best use their phones. Omnipoint Corp., a Cedar Knolls, N.J.-based wireless carrier, published a hardcover book, "Wireless Etiquette: A Guide to the Changing World of Instant Communication," by Peter Laufer.

Terry Phillips, Omnipoint's director of external affairs, said executives were initially reluctant to endorse the idea.

"First of all, we're not in the business of publishing books," Phillips said. "Second, we're not in the business of telling our customers not to use our product. It would be tantamount to General Motors saying to motorists, 'Don't drive on Sunday.'"

The book suggests that the mobile phone user control the technology, not the other way around. Thus, the user would inform colleagues or friends that he or she expects calls to come in during lunch or a meeting. When a call comes in, leave the table. At a play or religious service, switch the ringer off and let voice mail take the call.

It's likely many consumers won't take kindly to rules suggested in the book -- or to the notion that entertainment establishments can tell them how to behave.

Ron Riddle of Dayton, Ohio, doesn't own a cell phone, but he does eat out often and favors restaurants controlling the atmosphere in their dining rooms -- within limits.

"Which seating preference would you like this evening, sir?" Riddle said in jest. "Smoking or non-smoking? Cell phone or non-cell phone? Crying babies or non-crying babies? Loudmouth drunks or non-loudmouth drunks?"

For New York restaurateur Meyer, his new phone restrictions haven't hurt business.

"I have a file full of letters from people saying, 'Thank you for taking a stand,'" Meyer said. "Most people are happy to know what you expect of them. This technology has grown up so quickly that most people have not stopped to think what the etiquette should be."

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