Too Much Cell Phoning, BlackBerry Pecking
Mobile wireless-device users should start practicing some etiquette in public. Pro or con?
Pro: Vexing Frequency
If any technology has eroded and subverted the sense of privacy, it’s mobile wireless.
"It used to be you called a place, not a person," says Joanna Krotz, president of content-strategy firm Muse2Muse Productions. "You were calling a home or an office where not everyone could hear. But with cell phones, you’re calling a person who could be anywhere in public—but still imagines that there’s a zone of privacy."
Hence the unwilling listener ends up in some unfortunate situations—say, trapped in an elevator with a phone-wielding surgeon extolling the benefits of proper wound drainage. And how many times have you started to answer a question from a stranger before noticing her ear bud and realizing she’s talking to someone unseen?
It comes as little surprise that a 2006 ABC News survey on rudeness revealed that Americans consider talking loudly on cell phones the No. 1 irritating behavior. In fact, the need to counteract cell-phone intrusiveness has led businesses Salemi Industries and C.P. Booth to market empty booths for installation in public areas. That way, people can talk within a discreet shelter.
Inconsiderate use of wireless technology not only irks but also causes mistakes and setbacks. At least one outpost of the Auntie Anne’s pretzel chain has posted a sign forbidding customers from ordering until they get off the phone. It can be bad for business in other ways, too. "If clients remember you took BlackBerry calls during the last meeting, they may decide not to see you again," says Pamela Eyring, owner of the Protocol School of Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, simple irritation and mild alienation rank as the biggest onus of the wireless revolution. A two-sided conversation between two people in the confines of a restaurant waiting area qualifies as normal background noise we can tune out. But for whatever reason, hearing a one-sided chat is alienating and bothersome.
Mobile devices were intended to increase the quality of our lives by allowing us to receive necessary messages. So why do people feel compelled to open a BlackBerry e-mail with the subject line "Two-for-One Lobsters" while relaxing with friends or attending a seminar?
Because they can.
These machines pique a basic instinct spawned by curiosity and the desire to feel needed. There’s only one way to control it: Unless you’re waiting to hear an organ donor has been found for your ailing child, turn off your wireless devices—or at least switch to vibrate—when you’re with any friend, family member, or co-worker. And when you must take a call in public, keep it short and your voice low.
Con: Just Deal with It
The numbers tell half the story of cell phone and BlackBerry use. There are 233 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. alone, and upward of 10% of all households have cell-phone service but no land line, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn.
Wireless communication is here to stay, folks, and it has changed the way we communicate forever.
Already, many schoolchildren have practically abandoned e-mail, communicating with their friends via text messaging and mobile phone calls instead. Parents use cell phones to keep track of their kids. Armed with wireless devices, no two friends ever need lose each other in a shopping mall again. And how about the ability to call from trains, buses, and cars to let a client know you’re running late? Invaluable.
BlackBerrys have freed office workers from the tyranny of e-mail in-boxes on the monitor in their work stations. Now, they can enjoy a meal with friends while waiting for an important message to materialize.
All these new capabilities cannot help but come with a few annoyances. Perhaps the innovations have come more quickly than our ability to adapt to them. "People are sensitive about changes in environment," says Jakob Nielsen, a principal of Nielsen Norman Group and an expert in human use of technology. "They aren’t used to listening to another person’s one-sided conversation, but in time they will get used to it."
Some cultures view a cell-phone call that comes during dinner as a necessary interruption. "In Finland and the Philippines, it’s normal for four people to go to a restaurant together and put their cell phones on the table with the screens up," says Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs, a book about mobile communications.
And on the subject of dining, let’s consider another scenario—a tableful of a dozen or so office workers joking around and telling one another stories in a restaurant. If you find yourself stuck sitting at a booth next to them, they’re a bunch of loud-mouthed jerks. But if you’re one of them, you’re just a jovial bon vivant entitled to cut loose with a bunch of your good buddies after a hard day at the office.
Likewise with the elevator scenario. Maybe you’re forgetting the times you’ve been the one who has imposed on a hapless listener. Let he among us who is without sin cast the first phone.Opinions expressed in the above Debate Room essays are for the sake of argument and do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.