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November 04, 2006

Bad Cellphone Behavior

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another poll! Which is more reprehensible: The person who talks on his/her cellphone ...

  • While at a busy ATM stop?
  • While executing a transaction with a cashier?
  • Or while in a crowded elevator?

Nate Davis blogged about what it's like to be the cashier when your customer is on the cellphone. I wrote about the different ways men and women use cellphones here; I bitched about the ways cellphones promote self-centered behavior here and here; and I praised the cellphone thriller "Cellular" here.



posted by Michael at November 4, 2006


Right on! People who use cellphones in these situations are inconsiderate jerks! Cellphone use should be banned in many public situations! Also. . . uh, wait a minute. Um, yeah.. . . Hold on. Um, uh, yeah, yeah. Here's my card. Wait. No. Yeah. MB, MB, are you there? Hello? Hello? OK. Do you have a pen? Sorry, I have to take this ca.. .

Posted by: Jonathan on November 4, 2006 1:06 PM

i second third and fourth that.

Posted by: Eric on November 4, 2006 2:17 PM

Yesterday the driver's shield sported a sign:
In the word CELLPHONE "c" stands for CURTESY.

Three women were speaking simultaneously into their cells, in the silence of the 8pm bus.

Posted by: Tat on November 4, 2006 2:39 PM

Sorry for misspeling.

Posted by: Tat on November 4, 2006 3:40 PM

At college, I worked at the circulation desk in the main library, which is close enough to being a cashier in retail. Cellphone use there is the worst. In the elevator or bus, it's annoying but not keeping others from reaching goals. The ATM situation is bad too, since you can't just go to another one quickly, as you can to another line in the retail store / library.

[some ugly blonde just gave me that miffed look like I was checking her out -- get real honey, I was busy checking out the tawny Turk. Why are ugly girls always the most suspicious? Sorry, just had to give this comment more of a "cellphone interruption" feel.]

In addition to keeping other customers from reaching their goals, the yaker-in-line pisses off the employee as well. I didn't have a cellphone in college, but if I did, when somebody pulled the "I'm too important to do two things at once" trick, I would've stopped to chat on my own phone once they reached the check-out desk.

In general, nuisances are preferred to outright obstacles.

Posted by: agnostic on November 4, 2006 4:57 PM

Two thoughts. The first is a little geeky.

The reason people speak so loudly on their cell phones is that the manufacturers have eliminated something called "side-tone" from the design of the typical cellphone.

If you think about it, when you use a normal, plain-old telephone with a wire running into the wall, when you speak into the receiver, you can hear your own voice faintly through the earpiece. Or at least all classic phones that had AT&T stamped into the plastic let you hear your own speaking voice through the earpiece.

That's because these phone transmit a very soft signal of what you are saying into your ear. Why, I don't know, but that sound of your own voice in your own ear is called, "side-tone."

Cellphone manufacturers originally built side-tone into their cell phones, but must have stopped because users must have complained that was too much ambient noise from their cacaphonous outdoor surroundings being transmitted moutpiece into the earpiece of the cellphone. Solution? Get rid of side-tone in every cell phone. You don't get all the external noise in your ear.

The unintended consequence of this is that people now have to shout into their cellphone to hear themselves speak. They have been conditioned by years of "side-tone" to expect to hear themselves in their earpiece, but now they don't, so they think they must talk louder. That's why everyone sounds so annoying.

Second point. What to do about this.

Someone needs to come up with an inoffensive, universal hand-signal to let people know they are making too much noise on their phone. Something like the single, index-finger raised to puckered lips, accompanied, by "shhhh", which tells a person lower their voice.

This particular gesture has already been taken, plus it's a little offensive. It doesn't quite apply in the case of the side-tone-free cell phone, because lots of people just don't know they're talking too loud. They just can't hear themselves without side-tone.

Posted by: Heron543 on November 4, 2006 5:29 PM

Cellphone rude is one thing, but how about cellphone fatal? Could there be a more lethal combination than driving in heavy traffic while simultaneously absorbed in a cellphone conversation? There oughta be a law. That there isn't we can thank the cellphone lobby for.

Posted by: ricpic on November 4, 2006 6:00 PM

Heron, excellent comment. I had never thought about that but it makes sense to me. Still, something's got to be done. I can't imagine many parents out there today are teaching their kids cellphone etiquette, and the places that enforce it, like private clubs, are considered fuddy-duddy institutions.

My pettest cellphone peeve, however, is that people seem unable to speak on a cellphone and walk in a straight line at the same time. I call it the cellphone weave. Some guy or gal in front of you on the sidewalk is yapping away and doesn't even know that he or she is weaving like a drunkard, making it awkward if not impossible for you to pass. Add thousands of people doing this on crowded city streets and it's a big, big contributor to the utter breakdown of basic pedestrian skills that's making places like New York increasingly difficult to live in.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on November 5, 2006 12:10 AM

For sheer reprehensibility I vote for the cashier transaction scenario. Since an actual human being (usually, pretty much) is involved in the supposed transacting, it just seems like one more way to let a fellow prole know how much you don't give a shit.

I took part (willingly, and gleefully, actually) in a scene at a discount store a few days ago. A very prosperous-looking, attractive twentysomething female customer -- quite conspicuous in this rather downscale store -- had been swanning around the store in full cell phone bellow, generating much attention, and when she strode up to the fast check-out lane, I made sure to get there ahead of her (a friend was with me) so's I could interfere. She clearly wanted her conversation to be heard -- something about how she'd NEVER flirt with another man with her husband present and blah blah blah, the usual shit, and her volume had passed outrageous. Being comfortable with crude, I shouted out my hemorrhoid speech to my friend (in the miscreant's direction) -- descriptions of piles, etc., and creams & ointments for the soothing of, matching her volume -- while she was trapped, the only other cashier having several loaded buggies in line. Sophomoric, stupid, yeah -- but it was SO effective. The real payoff was not her trying desperately to talk over my talking over her or slamming her pocketbook around to show her irritation, it was the feeling of total solidarity and triumph when the cashier and the other five people in line hooted and screamed with laughter (one clapped) during the whole thing. It was a good moment. I don't think I'd do it again, though. I was so mad that something HAD to be done. I think it was a fluke that it happened to work so well.

Posted by: Flutist on November 5, 2006 3:53 AM

Heron543 – Great point on the “side-tone” and its absence from cell phones!

Unfortunately, I doubt that any hand signal will help against the most intrusive cell phone abusers. I have seen people answer their cell phones and carry on a long conversation in the library, clearly disrespecting all tradition for maintaining a respectful silence. And the worst recent offender most recently was a man in his 50s, just in case someone wants to assert that the younger generation is more likely to be cell phone abusers.

Re: Men and women and cell phones. Totally unscientific, but I have observed men use cell phones more aggressively and in places where they clearly are disturbing others. For example, I have observed men use their cell phones while using the bathroom (you can hear them through the stall doors) and in restaurants, talking loudly over the regular din of regular conversations. And in walking down the street, I have seen more men engrossed in conversations either depend upon others to move out of their way, or to blithely collide with people who don’t pay attention. I’ve even noticed slightly more men than women at restaurants either initiate a cell phone conversation or answer their phone and talk for some time when they have a guest with them with whom they were previously having a conversation.

I used to do a longish commute, and once had a guy sit directly behind me and start up a cell phone conversation – even though we were the first ones on the bus and there were plenty of empty seats. In this instance, I told the guy that he had to move.

On the other hand I have only seen women get on the bus, initiate a phone conversation and talk continuously for the entire duration of their commute (over half an hour).

Posted by: Alec on November 5, 2006 4:11 AM

Back when I lived in Alexandria, VA, I used to like to go to one of several restaurants on lower King Street and have an early dinner with a good book. I always picked a time early enough that I wouldn't interfere with the restaurant's prime time crowd. Usually after I got seated, ordered a glass of wine, made my dinner choice, and opened my book, I was oblivious to the few other diners in the room.

One day was decidedly different. From the front of the room, there came two very loud discussions that were obviously unrelated. I looked up to discover a young couple sitting at a window table, both talking LOUDLY on their cell phones to other people. The young man had ordered a T-bone, which he had in his hand and was gnawing on like a caveman since the cell phone prevented his using a knife AND fork. God knows what the passers-by on King Street made of this scene......

Posted by: D Flinchum on November 5, 2006 7:22 AM

Don't forget the airport waiting area. I once heard an incredibly loud, obnoxious young man bellowing into a cell phone at the Atlana airport. Clearly, everyone in the area was miserable having to listen to his salesman's jive for about 15 minutes. He either thought we were all just fascinated with his clever sales-speak or was determined to inflict the maximum amount of pain on us. I still can't figure out which. What happened to the old phone booths? Can we get them back?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 5, 2006 7:53 AM

"There oughta be a law." There is in Britain. Widely ignored, though - how very continental we are becoming.

Posted by: dearieme on November 5, 2006 8:12 AM

Francis: You're right about the way cell phone users weave on the sidewalk. They violate what I have always thought was a rule that pedestrians generally obey in New York City, and that is that people walking in straight lines have the right-of-way. If you are walking on a sidewalk and have to move diagonally, the rules dictate that you must give right-of-way to anyone walking in a straight line. A person talking on a cell phone and weaving throws everyone off. Everyone. The entire complex, self-organizing system of pedestrianhood breaks down.

Here's another thought about what to do with people talking too loud on cellphones. It falls in the category of "there oughta be a law."

My libertarian streak leads me to believe that people who talk too loudly on cell phones are violating my rights, specifically my property rights. The particular property right they are violating is my right to control what takes place within my small, personal envelope. Within that envelope I have the right to, among other things, "peace and quiet." This is quite properly an unalienable right. In fact, we all have "aural property", and cell phone users are trespassing. Just as you would object if someone opened a school for jack-hammer operators next door to you, you should be able to object when people with cell phones fail to respect their neighbors.

Posted by: Heron543 on November 5, 2006 8:51 AM

My two favorite questions about cellphones:

(1) How many of you really thought(in the days before cellphones were common) that, given the means to talk on the phone more or less all the time, so many people would actually do it?

(2) Did cellphones turn people into rude assholes or did they just release the inner asshole that had always lurked within?

Posted by: Michael P on November 5, 2006 10:14 AM

The weaving while walking is caused by having only one arm free. In walking the arms naturally swing to provide balance, so the hand-to-ear creates a drifting that needs constant correction.

Also, the amount of neck damage involved with walking with the head cocked toward the phone is probably considerable over time, but the jerks will eventually figure this out.

Posted by: James M. on November 5, 2006 3:55 PM

Nothing makes me want to have a bazooka more than to see a person, cellphone in one hand, driving a Monstero SUV packed with kids, making a cross-street turn in front of you with one hand barely on the wheel, and then stopping in mid-intersection because they can;t make the turn without using two hands.

Beating them senseless with the celly is too light of a punishment. Only a bazooka will do. You may ask what of the kids in the SUV!?? Well, they'll only be picking up their parents' bad cellphone behaviour anyway, so...

Posted by: Darkov on November 6, 2006 9:41 AM

Taking a call while in a movie theater trumps all three of those. It used to happen more frequently 5 years ago and more, but I think people have finally come around to how incredibly rude it is.

The cashier thing bugs me, but I've never seen it actually slow a line down. I really don't mind the other two, and in fact, usually enjoy overhearing people's conversation, especially while on public transit. I'm also amazed that people can even carry on these conversations in public, as I don't have the ability to take phone calls in anything other than total privacy, even in my own house.

Posted by: the patriarch on November 6, 2006 10:30 AM

I'm clearlyi n the vast minority here, but I have to admit to not getting what's rude about talking on a cell phone at an ATM. To me, talking on a cell phone is almost always acdeptable as long as the volume is appropriate. After all, if a couple on a bus, or in a restaurant, is conversing in normal tones, that's not rude, right? So why does it become rude when it's one person on a cell phone? Because we can't hear one side of the conversation?

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on November 6, 2006 12:13 PM

"So why does it become rude when it's one person on a cell phone? Because we can't hear one side of the conversation?"

Actually, yes. Something about human personality finds hearing just one side of a conversation unpleasant.

Back in the mid 90s, when having a cell phone was somethign of a status symbol, it seemed that loud yakking was quite common. Now since anyone can have one, it's no big deal. Maybe all people, with the exception of the pathologically obnoxious types, have internalized basic cell phone etiquettes.

Heh. once on a commuter train, some guy who was talking loudly on his cell started to lose his signal, and began shouting "can you hear me!" into his phone.

"Yes, we all can hear you!" I yelled back loudly, much to his obvious embarassment. Everyone else started clapping.

Posted by: s.j. on November 6, 2006 1:01 PM

Tosy and Cosh. Not being able to hear one side of the conversation is exactly why one should refrain. There've been studies on this: The brain assimilates two-way conversation into the background much more easily than when only one side is heard. The former is fluid while the latter has a jarring effect.

Posted by: James M. on November 6, 2006 2:36 PM

"The entire complex, self-organizing system of pedestrianhood breaks down."

Yes! Pedestrianism is an intricate ecology (I wrote an essay on this for a spring 2007 book from Princeton Architectural Press called "The Suburbanization of New York") that in my experience once worked miraculously well, but which has completely imploded in the last few years, with cellphones and iPods both among the culprits (though perhaps only proximate causes).

James M.,
"The weaving while walking is caused by having only one arm free. In walking the arms naturally swing to provide balance, so the hand-to-ear creates a drifting that needs constant correction."

You may be right. But I've been observing closely the last couple of days, and it seems that the cellphone user walks a straight line while listening, but then lists sharply when speaking. Why would that be?

Posted by: Francis Morrone on November 7, 2006 12:16 AM

I don't think it's strictly that you can only hear one side of the conversation because so many of these conversations are so banal (see rich blond not flirting with someone not her husband story above) that hearing the other side wouldn't help at all. It would just be two rude loud boring assholes instead of one.

Thanks for the side noise tip---I don't typically talk on my cellphone in public, partly because I REALIZE that I feel like I'm shouting sometimes and I'm embarassed to be talking so loud with others around. Now I know why.

With respect to M Blowahard's question #2: No, cellphones haven't made people rude, it just made it clear who the rude people are.

Posted by: annette on November 7, 2006 10:38 AM

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