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Cellular Etiquette

by Julia Sneden

Beep-beepbuzzzrrrrring!  No matter where you are, theres no escaping them. The urgent signals of cellular telephones surround us wherever we go. 
        I know that used wisely, cell phones are wonderful things. I never argued when my son and daughter-in-law insisted on my carrying their cell phone with me as I drove from their house to my fathers. It was a 250-mile drive down the center of California, through some very open and empty country, and I was happy to think Id have help at hand in case of trouble. En route back, I found the phone very handy when I was caught in a huge traffic jam outside of San Jose (when is there ever NOT a traffic jam outside of San Jose?), and knew Id be late for supper.
        Cell phones have many good applications. My father suffered from a progressive disease that rendered him unsteady on his feet. Long before we convinced him to wear an Ive fallen and I cant get up button around his neck, we were comforted by the thought that he had a cell phone he could carry with him even out in the garden. (It wasnt until much later that I discovered the cell phone had in reality been only a radio cordless phone, and therefore of no use away from his yard, and far too bulky to clip to his belt but thats another story).
        A friend of mine swears that her whole life is different, now that she can call home on her cell phone from the supermarket, to check the pantry supply of items she has forgotten to write on her shopping list. She says she used to make multiple trips, because she was always sure she had the can of pineapple or perhaps tomato sauce needed for a recipe, but when she got back home, it was nowhere to be found. Nowadays, she just calls home and asks someone to check it.
       Its the abuse of cell phones that distresses me. I think we need some standards of cellular etiquette. They could be written up and inserted into the phone packaging, perhaps, or included with the monthly bill. They wouldnt take up much space. It seems to me that one could cover the problem with five simple commandments: 

  • Thou shalt not inflict thy conversation on others, not in airports, not in churches, nor in malls nor theatres nor any place from which thou callest. Thou shalt find a quiet, private place from which to call.
  • Thou shalt not pace openly, nor raise thy voice, nor gesticulate wildly when thou callest in a public place.
  • Thou shalt not drive and call unless thou hast a speakerphone. Both thy hands shall stay upon the wheel and thine eyes on the road.
  • Thou shalt pull off the road if thou dialest long numbers.
  • Thy ringer shall be turned off in meetings or when thou art a member of an audience or congregation. 

Of course those who most need these rules probably wouldnt bother to read the them. Some peoples need to be connected at all times borders on insanity. For example:  There is a famous actor who stopped in the middle of a performance and peered out into the audience, where someone was answering a loud ring.
             Will you turn off that ($#%$#&) phone? he said icily. There was a long silence. Thank you, he said with exaggerated courtesy. Now we will continue with the play.
             Back when I was teaching school, it was my daily duty to put the children into the cars. I remember one mother who was always on her cell phone. I would open the back door to the sound of laughter, or mid-sentence gossip. It continued as I helped the child to buckle her seatbelt. Goodbye, Id say, and the child would wave silently as I shut the door. The mother would pull out of the carpool line and roar off, still talking, never having acknowledged either her child or me. 
        By way of contrast, there was another mother who drove up, leaned over to open the door, and greeted her little boy with a huge smile and a cheerful: Hi, Wills! It was plain that the sight of him just made her day.  She, too, had a car phone. It stayed on its hook while she welcomed her son.
        All of us have observed (and dodged) bad driving by people with cell phones held tight to an ear. There was a time when I was doing a 170-mile commute each weekend, to visit my elderly mother in a nursing home.  At one point, I was cruising along behind a green car with a driver who was on his phone, and looking at him, I actually thought: Perhaps I should consider getting a cell phone as long as Im on the road so much At that very point, his car swerved over the dotted line into the left lane, right in front of a huge truck.  The truck driver leaned hard on his very loud horn. The green car jerked back to the right, and veered onto the shoulder before the driver pulled back into the lane in front of me. 
        Not five minutes later, a BMW flew by me going at least 15 miles over the speed limit, and cut in sharply. As I braked, I saw again a driver talking on a cell phone. Maybe, I thought, I should forget about getting a cell phone. And forget it I did.
         Last year, I had a long wait in the Chicago airport. Several flights had been delayed, and the boarding area was crammed with people.  Next to me sat a very attractive young woman in business clothing, speaking on her cell phone. Since I was reading a good book, I didnt pay much attention. Soon, however, her voice rose and her tone became frantic. Clearly, she was under great stress. Whoever was on the other end of the line was not letting her finish her sentences. Tears began to streak down her cheeks. But I love you! she cried. It was obvious that she was trying to explain herself, and equally obvious that whoever was on the other end wasnt listening, even though everyone sitting within ten feet of her was being forced to do so.
        Apparently he hung up on her, for she broke off in mid-sentence, stared at the phone, and turned it off. It was all I could do not to turn to her and say: Get rid of him, honey. Ive been there and its not worth it! I couldnt, of course. In this day and age, we are all supposed to pretend we arent hearing what goes on around us even though we cant possibly avoid it.
       The ones that I think are really funny are the teenagers in the mall. They stand with chins tucked down, shoulders hunched, muttering into their phones, their stances an amusing combination of See me, look at my phone! and  None-of-your-business-butt-out-please adolescent pride. That they choose to hold conversations in this most public place signals real change, since the teenagers I used to know would go to great lengths to drag the phone into another room and slam the door shut. Somehow that was so provocative that I had to sit hard on my urge to eavesdrop. The mall kids, on the other hand, are so out there that I feel sure they are muttering banalities, and am not even tempted to listen in.
       Back when I was teaching, I remember one parent conference where first the mother and then the father received cell phone calls. Apparently both calls were important, because in each instance, the answering parent said, Excuse me, and left the classroom. Upon the return of each, I had to repeat whatever I had been saying to the parent who wasnt on the phone. It took approximately half-again as much time to complete that conference, and left me feeling strangely unimportant to their lives even though the information I was offering would affect their daughter directly.
        I realize that I am hopelessly out of sync in this hyper-connected world (I dont even have an answering machine). It may be that some day I will feel the need for a cell phone, and if I do, I certainly wont hesitate to buy one. I will, however, make an earnest effort to use it wisely, and Ill try not to inflict my phone usage on others. But until that time, Ill relish my privacy and elusiveness. I dont even mind being called a dinosaur.



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