BOSTON — Picture this: A woman is strolling in the supermarket. From a distance, she looks as if she's talking to herself, sounding like the teacher on Charlie Brown: "Whah-whah, wha wha wha whah." Shoppers around her get distracted. "Is she talking to me?" they wonder.
No, she is actually talking to a friend - on the cell phone that's pinned between her ear and shoulder. Not a quick call about groceries. Yada yada yada.
Inappropriate or OK?
To Marjabelle Young Stewart, author of "The New Etiquette" (St. Martins), such behavior falls on the side of inappropriate. "You have to respect people's public space," she urges.
Increasingly, as communication technology becomes more advanced, more portable, and more affordable - thus more commonplace - issues concerning how, when, and where to use it escalate.
Cell-phone etiquette is really just common courtesy, Ms. Stewart says. As a rule one should use a soft, low voice (you can still be firm), she says, and if you're seated next to others, ask if they mind. It's courteous to respect those who share the space around you. In short: Be discreet.
Stewart cites a recent example. She was sitting next to a businessman on an airplane who talked on his cell phone. "He was wheeling and dealing, but he was very quiet and very refined," she says approvingly.
While the idea of discretion may be understood, many establishments see a need to lay down ground rules. Fine restaurants, for example, have strict policies concerning cell-phone use, sometimes considered as taboo as cigar-smoking. The Cheesecake Factory, with restaurants across the United States, requests, right on its menu, that patrons refrain from using cell phones.
More serious than a breach of etiquette over a piece of cheesecake is the debate over whether car phones pose significant safety threats on the road.
"We live in such a wired world," says Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications in Elkins Park, Pa., and a frequent speaker on business etiquette. Lower rates for phones have resulted in increased use and increased abuse of the technology, she says. Sometimes you find yourself overhearing conversations you wish you didn't have to overhear. Other times the interruption is intolerable.
Ms. Brody recently attended a play in London where attendees were asked to turn off cell phones and beepers. But sure enough, the woman seated in front of her forgot she had her phone on until it rang from the depths of her purse. "Like any technology, you want to use it efficiently and respect others.... And if you are making a call, you should let [the recipient] know you're on your cell phone in case you fade in and out," she says.
To be sure, attitudes about private conversations in public places vary, whether it's personal or business-related.
"It's a matter of personal judgment," says David Schulze, regional sales director of IET Intelligent Electronics, a software company based in Burlington, Mass. "My phone is on 24 hours a day," he says. (In fact, it rings while this reporter is on the speaker phone with him.) He estimates he makes or receives 12 to 15 calls a day.
Mr. Schulze has had a cell phone for 10 years, but only in the past year have people completely accepted it, he says. In addition to voice mail, e-mail, paging, caller-ID, and two-way radio, his digital cell phone has a "vibrate" option, so no one is disturbed by any rings.
To Schulze, having a cell phone means freedom to roam without missing a call. But to his co-worker, John Dyer, a cell phone equals confinement. "Once I go out of the office, I turn it off," says the senior project manager. "There's a time and place," he says, adding "I'm not against the technology, I'm against people using it rudely.
"The one thing that really peeves me," he continues, "is when you're in the middle of a conversation with someone and they cut you off" to answer their phone. To which Schulze adds: "For me, it's a fact of life."
Certainly the duration of the call and the user's attitude are significant factors. A one-minute call from the train to make sure your ride is there is less intrusive than a drawn-out discussion about stocks or business strategy. Likewise, reminders to the home front - "Would you please pick up the dry cleaning?" - are more discreet than continuing last night's spat.
And practically everyone has seen a show-off talker at one time or another. "I used to feel [annoyed] at a restaurant, if someone was holding court while I'm at the next table being romanced," says Stewart. But that happens less and less. There's the rest room or lobby, and people are more likely to curl into their phones with an "OK, Joe, I'll see you soon" type call, she says.
As Brody notes, "There used to be a certain arrogance; cell phones were status symbols, but not any more."
Technology has brought wonderful immediacy to communication, as well as added safety to car travelers and roving teenagers, says Stewart. Recently at an airport, Stewart overheard a pilot call home before boarding a plane. He talked to his two children and encouraged them to "wish Mommy a very happy birthday."