The yakety-yak attack

October 12, 2003|By Daniel Meltzer

WHAT IS it about cell phone users that is driving the rest of us nuts?

We are an ever-shrinking minority in a world of the compulsively connected who have seemingly little of interest to say yet compel us to listen to it anyway, virtually any place, any time. And it bores deeper than the annoying chirp or tune in the middle of dinner or an elevator ride, a movie or a play, your bus ride or your lecture hall, if you lecture.

There seems to be something inherently wrong here, something beyond garden-variety rudeness, falling somewhere between a violation of the natural order of things and an attack on civilized society, something that simultaneously renders obsolete such seemingly conflicting niceties as public space, privacy and even non-electronic conversation.

A single cell phone talker virtually seizes and occupies a public communal space and instantly converts it into his or her own. And everyone in earshot must bear witness to one-half of a generally mundane, sometimes painfully intimate, fragment of a chat by and about matters and people of whom we know nothing and about whom we care even less. The idea of going out for a casual walk, either to think something through or to think about absolutely nothing, has become quaint. Instead, it exposes us almost daily to the most alienating of experiences.

I am at least as nosy as anyone about how other people cope and communicate. The occasional brief, overheard exchange in a coffee shop, on a train or on a sidewalk - that happened-upon window into some human drama - has always been one of our secret guilty pleasures.

Go for a stroll or a ride these days, however, and they are, on the one hand, all around you all the time, and on the other, boring beyond belief. This is what you hear:

"What time can you be there? I told them 7. Where are you now? Where did you say you are? Where? Oh, I see you. Keep walking ... " Or:

"What? Where are you? You're breaking up, I can't hear you ... " Or:

"It had two bedrooms, but no view, totally, and the asking price, forget it. I have another one to look at tomorrow." Or:

"She said what? I don't believe you." Or:

"I'm on the train. I should be home in about 25 minutes." Or:

(In a supermarket) "They're out of Bulgarian feta. Is Greek OK?" Or:

"I'm on the bus. We're stuck in traffic. So what are you doing?" Or:

"I'm on line at the Post Office; it's out the door. What's happening?"

And the new millennium mantra:

"I'm losing you ... "

New York City was never one of those "howdy, neighbor" kind of places where cheerful street greeting and easy chat were common. The unspoken taboo on eye contact persists. Even in your own 'hood, a casual nod to someone you may often see but don't really know may provoke her defenses. A mere "hi" to the wrong face can leave you feeling stupid and off-balance.

Cell phones have taken this down to an entirely new level. At any given time, on any given street, more and more of those you pass, walking alongside you, standing with you at the corner, are likely to be both there and not there, staring into space and speaking with someone a few blocks, or perhaps 1,000 miles, away.

Waiting on a runway for takeoff these days, it's hard to tell jittery passengers desperate to make or receive a call from those in early nicotine withdrawal. And while they yak away, in full volume - at the gate before boarding, in mid-flight, or even standing in line at a bank - the rest of us can only roll our eyes, grind our teeth and feel our stomach acids gurgle.

A relative called me from a city bus recently. "Please don't do that," I told her. "Why?" "Look around you," I said. She must have been getting stares. "Oh," she said. "But it's so convenient."

Exactly. We are too easily addicted to convenience - fast food, remote controls, e-mail, online shopping, pills for our moods, cell phones. Only one of these really irritates the hell of other human beings around you. Think about that. You remember thinking. It's what we used to do while taking a walk or standing on line.

Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism and theater at New York University.

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