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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,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments


It's the same as any other social situation. When you use a cellphone, the guideline is to be considerate. Anyone who isn't, will find others responding appropriately.


A recent study shows that multi-tasking, including talking on cell phones while doing other things, actually produces a lower quality work product. This suggests that our cell-phoning, e-mailing, blackberrying workforce isn't working smarter. They're just working in a more intellectually cluttered way.

Emanuel Molho

Is it really necessary to use cell phones on planes and in cars, especially when there is the real possibility of potential danger? How about a modicum of quiet for those who cannot bear the self-important, insufferable boors who subject all of us to their cell phone stupidities?

Cell phone addicts are unconscious, disrespectful, discourteous and obnoxious in public transportation and areas like doctors' offices, theaters, restaurants, checkout lines, just about everywhere. In their own dream world they walk like zombies in the street, or "drive" their cars. Their business is everyone's business. Unable to bear silence or be by or with themselves for a moment. They are totally oblivious to -- and inconsiderate of -- their neighbors.

Cell phones will be as ubiquitous in airplanes as they are in places where we are all held captive. These (ab)users ought to be relegated to their own soundproof cabin and compelled to suffer one another's inanities for the entire flight.

I, and hopefully those who share these feelings, will give our business to the airlines that have the sense to ban them.

Emanuel Molho


Users of cell phones in public have overstepped their bounds. Now we are asked to be quiet while they chat in public spaces. The same rant applies to them as to amorous kids: "Get a room!"


The cell phone is indeed very useful. I'm a 21-year-old college student and have been a frequent cell phone user since I was 16. I have found it to be a huge convenience in most cases, but it's a nuisance also many a times. Even when hanging out with friends I find many of them fiddling with their cells a lot of the time, whether it's messages or calls. I'm talking about non-urgent, silly stuff. I think when people call for cell-phone etiquette most don't mean that other should turn off cell phones. I think they simply want others to be considerate. When hanging out in a group, people should screen calls & messages and take only the urgent ones. Try to be as quiet as possible when taking calls in public. Is that too much to ask? I guess that's for the individual to decide.


If the cell phone goes along with the person, the ring and the subsequent conversation also should be heard only by that person. It is a one-to-many situation. It benefits one and disturbs all the rest. The rest did not ask for it!


I think it is ridiculous to single out loudmouths with a cell phone. To be fair, I think we should also scorn and shame loudmouths talking to another human being! I personally am bothered by all loudmouthed Americans that are difficult to ignore. Americans in general talk to loud and I really don't think it matters if they are talking on a cell phone or to the person across the table in a restaurant. We should tell them all to shut up. But we would never ask some people at the table next to us to stop talking so loudly unless they are talking on their phone. Why the double standard? Honestly, sometmes it is easier to tune out one-sided conversations than the two-sided ones I can hear in all of their "annoyingness."

By the way, sometimes people think it is necessary for the other person on the phone to hear them to talk loud. What the heck is the excuse of the people on the plane or the restaurant or just about everywhere in American for talking so loud to the person next to them? Are they all drunk or trying to talk above their IPods?


I think people with the name Michael are too brash and arrogant and love generalizations. How can you make a generalization like that!? Think before you talk. Just because you have had run-ins with maybe 10 Americans, doesn't mean you can go ahead and make generalizations about 99.9% of the population that you have yet to run into. I think that because of what people see on TV and movies, Americans get a bad wrap. I have traveled abroad and I could easily say the same thing about people from many different countries I have met, but I refrain from making a generalization about the whole country and their citizens based on a few run-ins.

Back to the subject at hand. I don't like cell phones in general; they are a cancer that actually causes cancer. It's not good to be able to be contacted 24/7; there is no divide between work and home. And there is no down time. Therefore I have a bias against cell phones in general, and I do not like loud people in general, so loud people on cell phones also annoy me.


I am a 22-year-old college student, and I also feel people are increasingly rude when they use their cell phones. I have had a variety of part-time jobs while attending school. I worked in a grocery store deli where we got the dirty looks because people were too busy on cell phones to specify the product they wanted. Instead of telling us, they thought we should just know what and how much of something they want by way of pointing.

I also worked summers in a seasonal restaurant where people continued to sit and talk at a meal while the person they came with was ignored. And I got complaints from people sitting around them. I am guilty of picking up my phone in public places, but people, please limit the conversation to a few minutes. No one else but you wants to hear what "Jane" did at work, or how your dog has yet again stained the carpet.

Brian R.

Most of the comments to date are right on, especially Emanuel Molho's. In so many instances, the cell phone seems to be this generation's cigarette. To be comfortable in public, we apparently require a prop, and the cell phone is now the prop of choice. Besides, it helps us conduct our "business" as though those around us do not exist. Hey, I cannot acknowledge any of the rest of you--I have to take this (critically important) call.


Can "Sue" (April 13) cite the study that shows "that multi-tasking, including talking on cell phones while doing other things, actually produces a lower quality work product"? That's an important piece of this discussion, and I'd like to learn more about those findings.


If the cell phone conversation is so intrusive that I cannot help but hear it, I join in. People get the hint.


Hey Owen, there are many recent case studies and articles in the news about multitasking and its relation to work productivity. You can just search Google and find numerous examples. Sue was probably talking about the recent ones that came out.

One article/Web site I found extremely interesting and easy to read is:


First of all, relying on one's fellow Americans to show "common courtesy" is not going to work. I totally agree with the comments above that say people already talk loud enough, cell phone or not. That being said, I don't understand why people shout into their phones. I practically whisper into mine when I'm in public, and I've never had to tell the person I'm calling "Can you hear me now?"

Some possible solutions:

(1) Cell phone carriers and manufacturers should develop phones that can sense when they are in a "quiet zone" and switch themselves automatically to vibrate. Theaters, churches, and other places can make themselves "quiet zones" by deploying a short-range wireless transmitter (like bluetooth) that triggers the phone. This is better than jamming (which I think is illegal, and prevents emergency calls). Of course, this only silences the ring and not the loud-mouthed conversation, incoming or outgoing. So...

(2) The next step would be "ultra-quiet" or "text-only" zones. When the phones enter this zone (the theater/church/library/etc. would set the wireless transmitter power to a range to cover their entire area), and once in this area, the phone is incapable of voice calls. It would only be able to send/receive text messages, e-mails (new message alerts would vibrate), and access the web. Airplanes would be perfect ultra-quiet zones.

These two solutions would require cooperation from major U.S. cell carriers, and given how far behind the rest of the world we are in technology (Japan has had two-way video cell phones since 2001), I don't see this happening anytime soon—but sooner than expecting others to show good manners and courtesy.


I have no sympathy for the average American cell-phone user. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm 37 and I do not own, and have never owned, a cell-phone. I have never even spoken via cell phone. Ever.

Sure, I forgo the "convenience" of being able to talk to anyone anytime, but I also enjoy the privacy of being unreachable when I don't wish to be reached. Besides, from the plethora of one-sided conversations with which I am subjected on a daily basis, it seems that the vast majority of cell-phone conversations are not exactly of an emergency nature.

For kicks a couple of years ago, I got a part-time job as an usher at the local movie-cinema complex. It's a fun and easy way to earn a few extra bucks, and I see all of the movies for free. But by far the absolute best perk of this job is that I am obligated to get people off their phones. Period.

First it's, "Please end your call or take it outside." If that doesn't work, it's "Excuse me, you, out, now."

Nine times out of ten it's annoying teens who talk and text in the middle of a crowded theater. I can't help but wonder where they learn this behavior. But then, everywhere I go (the movies, the supermarket, restaurants, in traffic, everywhere), I see a parent with child/children in tow, and the parent is glued to the cell phone, largely oblivious to the children. I call this neglect plain and simple. This is where the young people learn such rude behavior, and this is the root of the issue that really needs to be addressed.

Thank you.


I am a widow. I used to feel annoyed at the mere sight of a woman walking through the mall yammering on a cell phone. Now, I realize that for most married women with a job, kids, and a husband, it's the only chance they get for any conversation with friends.

I do mind, however, what I refer to as cell phone elbow. That's when I pass a person in a narrow aisle with their elbow stuck into my space as they hold the phone to their ear. I used to duck for them, but now I just gently move their elbow from in front of my face with my extended hand. I get glared at, but tough s___ if they don't like it.

I also object to customers ahead of me in line slowing down things by using cells while they are being waited on.

What I hate worse is being waited on by a cashier with a cell phone held to their own ear. Both hands aren't free to ring up and sack my purchases, and God forbid that I should ever have to interrupt their chat with some business request I might need to make.


I am glad to see many people in this discussion endorse cell etiquette, even the young respondents. I once went to test a Toyota truck, and the salesman spent 15 minutes talking to an "old friend" on his cell before bothering to help me. When I returned solo from my test drive, he was nowhere to be found. I left the Toyota in the lot and went and bought a Ford.

Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD

BlackBerry was the cult-like gun in the holster. RIM realized this and has chopped off the corners to make it look like pretty Polly--a design copied from Nokia, etc. What annoys me is the battery marked "made in China for Japan."

Michael Procopio

Personally, I think the Blackberry is one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.

I found this article linked to my own, so I am linking back:

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