Loud talk on cell phone lets the world listen in

March 25, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

APPARENTLY, we have now reached the point in this country where everyone above the age of 8 is being issued a cell phone and told: "OK, get out there and have real LOUD, personal conversations in public."

In the dairy aisle of my local Mars supermarket the other day, a woman -- dark hair, intense, in her early 30s -- was doing just that.

Pushing her shopping cart with one hand and holding her Nokia with the other, she conducted an incredibly intimate conversation with someone named Ernie that could only be overheard by, oh, 300 other people.

Now, when I say incredibly intimate conversation, I mean incredibly intimate. Much of it seemed to focus on what she was going to do with Ernie when she got home. And it didn't involve decorating Easter eggs, if you catch my drift.

Here all I wanted to do was pick up a half-gallon of milk, and I had to listen to someone auditioning for an X-rated hot line.

But this is how it goes these days, when it seems like absolutely everyone has a cell phone and every conversation, no matter how personal, is conducted at 120 decibels in a crowd.

It's gotten so bad that a Boston PR consultant named Carol Page recently founded a Web site called CellManners.com, devoted to promoting civility between cell phone users and the people around them, according to the site.

When I talked to Page the other day, she confirmed that the problem of cell phone users violating others' personal space is getting worse.

"It's not just the willingness to be loud anywhere," she said. "It's the question of what people are talking about, too. People will go on and on about the most inane topics: `My doctor says I have a fungus!' "

She told me a couple of classic modern-day horror stories.

One was about a young woman on a bus in New York early one morning who whipped out her cell phone and called her boyfriend. In a loud, pitiless voice that could be heard in Wyoming, she proceeded to -- you'll love this one -- break up with the poor sap.

Sure, in retrospect, you can say she was doing the guy a big favor. But Page's sympathies rest with the other bleary-eyed commuters on the bus who had to endure this nightmare.

"Can you imagine?" Page said. "That's how they got their day started, by listening to this horrible woman!"

In another incident, which she said was reported in the New York Times, a man on a bus in Manhattan was conducting a loud business conversation on his cell phone. Every few seconds, he would say to whoever was on the other end: "You're not gonna get paid, Harry!"

After a few minutes of this, the other passengers on the bus started chanting in unison: "You're not gonna get paid, Harry! You're not gonna get paid, Harry!"

The good news: The chanting so unnerved this mope that he eventually stormed off the bus. Unfortunately, the bus had come to a stop when he did. A few more minutes and the other passengers might have tossed him out a window.

Page said such incidents confirm people are growing more and more intolerant of loud, dopey cell phone conversations in their midst.

So what should someone do about it? I asked. Like when I came upon Little Miss Kama Sutra discussing her love life in the dairy aisle, what should I have done?

"I like to shame people -- that's what I recommend," Page said.

She said she often goes up to cell phone offenders and says in a low voice: "You know, I bet you have no idea how loudly you're speaking and that everyone can hear your personal business."

And this works? I asked. People don't pull out automatic weapons and shoot you?

"Oh, yes, it works," she said. "People are often shocked that they're talking so loudly."

Page said people often talk too loudly on cell phones because they don't trust the phones and aren't familiar with the technology and sensitive microphones built into them. Or they may just have your basic bad connection.

But she makes no excuses for out-and-out rudeness, such as the clods who keep talking on their phones when they step up to a sales counter to make a purchase.

"It's a terrible source of frustration for a lot of [sales] people," Page said. "It's like saying to those people: `You're not there' or `You're not important.' "

I wonder if Little Miss Kama Sutra was still yapping with Ernie when she reached the checkout line?

If so, she probably skipped that whole "paper or plastic" issue.

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