Cell phone headset in place, sales executive Norm Page was making business calls from a secluded spot on the upper deck of the Marin County commuter ferry to San Francisco.
But when he reached a colleague on a commuter train to Manhattan, he heard shouting. “You don't have to hit me with the newspaper,” his co-worker was telling his irate seatmate, an elderly commuter who didn't like having his early morning commute disrupted by a cell phone conversation.
The cell phone invasion of once-quiet public spaces has spurred a fierce backlash, producing both anger and societal confusion over the proper boundaries of behavior. As a result, rules are changing. On the Marin ferry, a sign over the bar in the enclosed cabin announces, “Use of Cell Phones Not Allowed in This Area.”
“We started getting complaints,” said deck hand Juan Ochoa. “People on the ferry want to sleep; they want to drink cocktails; they don't want to hear anyone discussing stock quotes; they've had that all day.”
Page agrees. “I find it impolite to gab on in a public space,” he says.
Americans are still trying to figure out where using the cell phone is appropriate. “There's a developing tension here,” says Barry Brown, a scientist at the Hewlett-Packard Research Lab in Bristol, England, and co-editor of Wireless World: Social and Cultural Implications of Wireless Technology, a collection of essays by researchers due out this summer. “New social conventions will open up,” Brown predicts, such as the custom among cell phone users on British trains to ride between cars.
In Hong Kong and Singapore, cell phone conversations are ubiquitous, according to Anthony Town-send, a research scientist at New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. “There is no social pressure there not to use cell phones,” reports Townsend, fresh from a recent visit. One reason may be that cell phone use is much higher in Asian countries like Japan. “I think we're at a tipping point where half the population uses cell phones and half doesn't,” Townsend says. “It will seem less intrusive when 100 percent of the population has cell phones.”
But culturally, Americans like to have more space around them -- including space free of private conversation -- than more crowded Far Eastern societies, suggests Ann Humphries, president of Eticon, a Columbia, S.C., company that advises businesses on etiquette. (www.eticon.com). She says signs asking people to turn off their cell phones are increasingly common at business conferences and meetings.
The cell phone invasion of once-quiet public spaces has raised new etiquette questions. Is it polite to talk on your “cell” during lunch? (Corbis Images)
In response to complaints, several companies have started to develop technologies to jam cell phones from ringing in inappropriate settings. Jammers actually are illegal in the United States because of a 1934 law that prohibits the use of transmitters to block radio communications. However, Zetron, a company in Redmond, Wash., makes devices that can detect the presence of a cell phone as far as 30 meters away if it is on, spurring a loudspeaker announcement or message to security staff. The detector is sold mainly to medical centers where cell phones can interfere with incubators and heart monitors.
Perhaps the biggest etiquette confusion has arisen over when to take cell phone calls. Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Davis, was offended by a colleague at an international conference in Sweden who interrupted their conversation to take a call. “I found it off-putting that a random phone call was more important than conversation with me,” she recalled.
According to Humphries, “It's rude to take phone calls in a meeting that's already been scheduled. You hold calls, or say, 'I'm expecting a call from my son' ahead of time.”
Wireless consultant Penelope Stetz advises in The Cell Phone Handbook, “Pagers and wireless phones have no place in a business meeting. Set them on vibration alert, turn them off, or leave them at your desk.”
This is not the first time civilized society has had to devise new rules of etiquette for a new technology. Before the telephone came on the scene, people could see the person they were addressing and adjust their greeting to fit his social station, notes sociologist Richard Ling, a senior researcher at Telenor, the Norwegian telephone company. If someone was socially superior to oneself, he was addressed as “Sir”; a socially inferior person was addressed by his first name.
But phones introduced a new confusion because of the unseen identity of the caller. It was considered too vulgar to simply say “Hello” to someone who was potentially one's superior. So early phone books, Ling notes, provided instruction on answering the telephone with such properly ambiguous greetings as, “Hello, this is the Jones residence. Mary speaking.”
Not surprisingly, Ling's extensive research in Europe has found that people who do not use a mobile telephone have “a lot of resentment” against cell phone use in public spaces, while experienced users simply move to a quieter spot to avoid overhearing a conversation.
The strong emotions aroused against mobile phones suggests they have not yet attained the “taken for granted” place in society occupied by conventional phones, Ling says. “One does not, for example, react with anger when a normal telephone rings in a bar or a restaurant,” he notes, because conventional phones have become socially accepted. “This will come with the mobile, but it is not here yet.”