They're All Talk

In this cell-phone century, manners haven't quite caught up to technology.

February 02, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Last May, Judy Oppenheimer received a call from her son Toby that went something like this: "I'll have a decaf latte, hi, Mom, happy Mother's Day, make it tall.'"

As Oppenheimer, herself a reluctant cell-phone owner, has discovered, the evolution from land-line stalwart to wireless addict can be seamless and insidiously easy.

"I've watched my son go through an entire cell-phone attitude metamorphosis in the past few years," says Oppenheimer, a Washington, D.C. writer. "First, all cell phones were disgusting, spawn of the devil. Next, they were necessary evils, only used for work. Today he's turned into a true cell-phone junkie. I haven't talked to him on his home phone in months."

For those who can't live without them, it's easy to forget how inconvenient life was before cell phones. When it comes to cell phones, themselves, it's just plain easy to forget. To forget that Starbucks isn't your office. To forget you're in a bathroom stall. To forget that everyone in the Giant doesn't want to hear a hysterical fight between you and your invisible boyfriend. To forget that you're at a graveside service. To forget that you're having a gynecological exam.

To forget that you don't have to make a call just because you can. To forget that your kid's up at bat. To forget that talking on a cell phone while nursing a baby and driving with your elbows isn't very safe.

Plenty of social observers have tackled the fine points of cell-phone etiquette, but they can't possibly reach all of the 137.5 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. who are eager to play with their cool toys.

"This is a new technology and we have not yet created the best protocols to deal with it," says Carol Page. Page is founder of CellManners.com, an entertaining Web site where she fields questions from the cell-phone perplexed and supervises a lively cell-phone forum.

"We are only at the very beginning of an elaboration of the manners that are appropriate," she says. "We're sort of groping in the dark."

Yet, Page says, "If you are a civil person, if you are considerate of others, you know already that you should use a cell phone in a way that doesn't disrupt the comfort of others."

Inseparable appendage

But those counting on common decency perhaps forget themselves that a cell phone isn't just a cell phone.

It's fair to say that anyone's civility quotient might be compromised when in possession of a gadget capable of inflating, at least momentarily, an individual's self-esteem while expanding behavioral latitude in a most indiscreet manner.

The nagging, "Can you hear me?" mouthpiece quandary is further proof that the cell phone is a technological Pandora's box. In the interest of economy, a cell phone is designed so that the mouthpiece stops north of the mouth.

It's a psychologically disconcerting arrangement that prompts many to fear they can't be heard and to compensate by shouting. The world is rife with such "cell yell" culprits, as Page's Web site dubs them.

There are those for whom the cell phone has become an inseparable appendage, an electronic opposable thumb. And there are those whose lives are qualitatively the same as their cell phone-using counterparts, but have no use for the contraptions. At times, it seems the world is divided between the two camps.

Ned Eckhardt, for one, celebrates the cell phone at its most inane. "Probably 95 percent of all cell-phone calls are unimportant. People make them just to make themselves feel good," says Eckhardt, professor of communications at Rowan University in New Jersey. "This kind of spontaneous connection to another human being is very involving and fits into the warm, fuzzy Global Village feeling [media guru Marshall] McLuhan was sure the media was going to provide the planet."

Bad timing made easy

Others, such as P.M. Forni, are less generous.

"We live in a society in which privacy is almost a thing of the past," Forni says. He is founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin's, 2002, $20).

A phone call made in public "involves people even when they would prefer not to be involved," he says. "It's a sort of auditory, second-hand smoke, something to which you're exposed, even if unaddicted yourself. It's a concern, a factor having to do with quality of life on the threshold of the new century."

For all their convenience, cell phones can also add an extra level of undesirable unpredict- ability to our lives. Jennifer Dagdigian of Hamilton and her childhood sweetheart had just been declared man and wife last September and were about to walk down the aisle when his cell phone rang.

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