All hung up about cellphones

The man sitting next to me on the plane was discussing the day's stock market results - and his personal investment portfolio - in great detail.

Not with me, a stranger, but with someone on the other end of his cellphone connection. I was simply a reluctant listener to what in the past would have been considered confidential information.

Surely he wouldn't have shared these details with me directly, but he didn't seem to notice, or to care, that I couldn't escape overhearing.

What's the etiquette in such a situation, I wondered. Should I gaze off in the distance as though I'm deep in thought and don't hear him? Should I clear my throat to remind him I'm less than a foot away?

I finally decided that nothing I did would make any difference. Many cellphone users seem to be oblivious to the real world. I've been forced to listen to lurid details of a party while walking down the street, as well as overhearing one half of a passionate argument that lasted through dinner and was still going strong when I paid my check.

With cell-phone use proliferating faster than zucchinis in a summer vegetable garden, these uncomfortable electronic encounters are becoming daily


What's the proper protocol when you're in a restaurant with someone who leaves you twiddling your thumbs while he gabs on his cellphone?

Miss Manners recommends borrowing the phone to call a cab to take you home. Even in a techno world, common courtesy should reign: The person you're with is more important than a voice on the other end of a telephone line, she declares.

But what about an emergency or important business calls? That's the excuse when a ringing cellphone interrupts opera arias, tender moments in movies, even prayer in church.

The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville asks patrons to leave their phones with the manager, who will come to get them if they receive an emergency call. But Tokyo subway officials figure that people can manage without a phone for at least a short period and have bought equipment that jams cellular transmissions.

A woman wrote advice columnist Ann Landers bragging that her granddaughter had made 620 cell-phone calls and talked for 2,800 minutes during the previous month, paying only $31.50. Which raises the question: Do we chat endlessly in public simply because it's cheap?

Robert Thompson, professor at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., and president of the Popular Culture Association, speculates that some callers get a feeling of importance when others overhear their conversations.

Whatever the cause, today's lack of cellphone civility is enough to make a person long for the return of the phone booth. Not for the privacy of callers, but for the benefit of the rest of us.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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