Mind Your Manners

Phones: As U.S. cellular use catches up to other countries', experts expect Americans to grow into the technology -- and to improve their mobile-calling etiquette.

July 25, 2002|By Nara Schoenberg | Nara Schoenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tired of businessmen bellowing into their cell phones, glamour girls telling all to their cell phones, cyclists swerving through traffic while paying close attention to their cell phones?

The good news is, it could be worse.

The bad news is, it probably will be.

The United States, where about 40 percent of the population uses cell phones, is five years behind Japan and many parts of Northern Europe, where usage tops 50 percent. And in at least one country -- Finland -- usage has hit the 75 percent mark.

In Japan, young people who employ their thumbs to type out Internet messages on their cell phones are so common they have given rise to the term, "the thumb generation," according to a study sponsored by Motorola.

In England, songbirds have begun to mimic cell phone tones and melodies, the Independent newspaper reports.

Some authorities say that we're headed down a similar path.

"By 2006, I predict that at least 70 percent of the U.S. population will have cell phones," says Ted Rappaport, an engineering professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Public frustration with cell phones is likely to grow for another year or so, Rappaport says, until the proportion of users creeps above the 50 percent mark. After that he predicts some relief, as those who object to cell phones become more accustomed to them and those who use cell phones learn to conduct themselves in a less obtrusive manner.

Expect to see technology that facilitates privacy, such as text-messaging, and headgear that discourages bellowing. Experience also will have taught more users to turn their ringers off in restaurants and theaters.

So perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, we, like Japan and Britain, will outgrow our awkward cell adolescence.

Meanwhile, cultural historians may find fertile scholarly ground in this ugly duckling stage. In the interest of this future generation, we have attempted to catalog the various species of cell phone users who dominate the urban landscape in the summer of 2002.

The Drama Queen

"I'm breaking up with you," the stylish young woman says into her cell phone, as she approaches a busy intersection.

Her calm demeanor and loud, clear voice tell you two things. First, she is not actually in the process of breaking up with someone; she is in the process of rehashing a past breakup. Second, because she is doing this in the most ear-catching way possible, she wants you to listen.

Whether she is sobbing her eyes out in front of Neiman Marcus relating some trauma or reliving a romantic escapade in an airport waiting room, the Drama Queen isn't afraid of strangers.

Look for this colorful species in upscale shopping and entertainment districts. She tends to be younger than 40.

The Dealmaker

Whether he's bellowing at the poor soul at the other end of the line to buy, sell or "fax it to me," the message is the same. This is a man -- and the Dealmaker generally is male -- whose every word may determine the fate of the New York Stock Exchange.

Frequently seen in cafes, coffeehouses and airports, the Dealmaker speaks loudly and appears to prefer captive audiences. He may engage in what researcher Sadie Plant, author of the Motorola report, refers to as "stage-phoning," in which the caller is effectively performing for innocent bystanders. In extreme cases, performance may, in fact, be the entire point of the call.

"On an elevated train in Chicago, a young man talks on a [cell phone] in some style," Plant says in her report, On the Mobile.

"He's discussing an important deal while at the same time trying to impress a group of girls in the same part of the train. Then disaster strikes: His phone [rings] and interrupts him in midsentence, and his fictional deal is exposed."

The Spy

Just as some are conspicuous in their cell phone bravado, others are conspicuous in their attempts to achieve privacy.

See them standing in remote corners of coffee shops and cafes, leaning into their cell phones, hunching their shoulders, walking in circles so that -- even if your counterespionage skills involve lip-reading -- your attempt to crack the code will be foiled.

There is, of course, such a thing as simple cell phone modesty, but the Spy goes way beyond the call of duty, cultivating the impression that his or her phone call is a matter of national security.

The Hipster

It's an international youth phenomenon: cell phone as fashion/lifestyle accessory. In Hong Kong, Plant reports, teen-age girls decorate cell phones with stickers, trinkets, straps and toys. In Bangkok, girls carry phones in fur-edged pouches worn as necklaces.

In the United States, the presentation is less elaborate, but still awash in social significance. Young people pull out silver-tone cell phones that coordinate with their jewelry, or loudly announce their plans to their phones as they embark on a night on the town.

On a recent Saturday, a woman in her 20s stood at a busy corner, grinning, eerily, not at her date, not at passers-by, but at the air in front of her face.

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