Occasionally I like to reflect on the impact of mobile technology -- personal media devices, mobile phones, and the like -- upon contemporary culture. Now I'd like to talk about mobile phone manners. This is a perennial topic; I claim no originality in this post. But I cannot resist writing about some of the things I see people do with mobile phones that indicate a profound lack of concern for others. So as you read my note on the topic, please ask yourself: "Have I done this?" If the answer is yes, please stop.
Using a mobile phone while engaged in some service interaction. People who work behind the counter, take orders in restaurants, drive buses or shuttles for us, or fulfill any of the other myriad tasks necessary for us to function deserve respect and attention. I've stood in line behind a mobile phone user refusing to give eye contact or full attention to a cashier dozens of times, and I've never heard anything being said that is worth that kind of rudeness. Regardless of the attitude or disposition of a service worker with whom you're interacting, please tell your phone friend that you'll need a moment to handle the exchange, and that you'll be right back.
Using a mobile phone in a place of public performance. Movie theaters are the prime site for this sin, and teenagers are the prime culprits. But it seems that most everyone thinks it's OK to transform a public place into their private living room. Young and old, an alarming number of people think that if they simply talk "extra quiet," no one else will be bothered. Wrong. If the movie (or play or concert or whatever) sucks, walk out, complain to someone, and get your money back. But if you choose to stay, please turn your phone off. If you get a message (by way of your phone's vibrate feature, please), get up quietly, leave the room, and handle your business. Oh yes, and text messaging? That's almost as obnoxious. Particularly in a dark room, the light emanating from your phone makes it difficult for all but the most Zen-focused audience members to enjoy the performance. So don't. Just don't.
Receiving a phone call when you're spending time with a friend. Here I'm showing my age most obviously. I see young folks interrupting their conversations to take calls all the time, and no one seems to mind. But it's wrong, wrong, wrong. The fact that many folks seem unable to pay attention to one thing at a time for more than a few minutes doesn't mean we all should cultivate the habit of excessive social-multitasking. When you go to a restaurant and you're talking to a friend, turn the phone off and demonstrate through word and deed that you're present and that you care to be there. One of the kindest gifts you can give someone is your undivided attention. Don't sully the gesture by breaking out the phone just because someone else wants to ask whether you saw American Idol last night. And, again, if you must receive a call (preferably via your phone's vibrate function), beg your friend's pardon, excuse yourself, handle any immediate business, assure the caller you'll return the message soon, and return quickly -- preferably within a minute or two. Barring a genuine emergency, no mobile phone conversation is worth more than the physical presence of a friend.
Talking loudly on your phone in a public place. There are some public places -- airport terminals, buses, waiting areas -- where a brief mobile phone conversation is acceptable. These places are anonymous; in them, physical proximity does not convey social relationship. Nonetheless, possession of a mobile phone does not grant its user the right to speak so loudly as to produce aural pollution. If your job woes, your breakup, or your rash that smells like root beer is so important, please do talk to someone, but don't subject strangers to your conversations. You therefore have two options. (1) Find a secluded space (those few that are available in most public venues) and talk it out. Or (2) speak at a whisper, recognizing that today's mobile phones are generally able to pick up sounds at the low end of the auditory spectrum. If you're talking and people occasionally snatch glances at you, it's not because you're fascinating or attractive. It's because you're committing "cell yell." Cut it out.
Using a mobile phone while driving, cluelessly. It's so tempting and so convenient to chat on the road. We all do it once in a while, even though we shouldn't. Where I live, California, committing this sin will soon be illegal. And that's just as well. But if you simply must use your phone while driving, keep your call short and focused on essential content: directions, change of plans, etc. If you need more than a minute, please pull into a parking lot and talk all you like. Remember: everyone thinks that they're better drivers than the other idiots on the road -- even the idiots.
So that's it: my rules for mobile phone etiquette. They're so simple and so embarrassingly obvious. And yet I felt compelled to post them because of the sad fact that common sense is seldom common. Maybe next time I'll vent about something just as banal and necessary. What do you think: Littering?
Vallejo Times-Herald (2007, May 19): State senator rear-ends Vellejo woman while talking on cell phone: "[Senator] Migden last year voted for a new law that takes effect in July 2008 that will impose a minimum fine of $20 for anyone caught using a cell phone while driving without a headset, ear bud or other technology that frees both hands."