They're All Talk


Last May, Judy Oppenheimer received a call from her son Toby that went something like this: "I'll have a decaf latte, hi, Mom, happy Mother's Day, make it tall.'"

As Oppenheimer, herself a reluctant cell-phone owner, has discovered, the evolution from land-line stalwart to wireless addict can be seamless and insidiously easy.

"I've watched my son go through an entire cell-phone attitude metamorphosis in the past few years," says Oppenheimer, a Washington, D.C. writer. "First, all cell phones were disgusting, spawn of the devil. Next, they were necessary evils, only used for work. Today he's turned into a true cell-phone junkie. I haven't talked to him on his home phone in months."

For those who can't live without them, it's easy to forget how inconvenient life was before cell phones. When it comes to cell phones, themselves, it's just plain easy to forget. To forget that Starbucks isn't your office. To forget you're in a bathroom stall. To forget that everyone in the Giant doesn't want to hear a hysterical fight between you and your invisible boyfriend. To forget that you're at a graveside service. To forget that you're having a gynecological exam.

To forget that you don't have to make a call just because you can. To forget that your kid's up at bat. To forget that talking on a cell phone while nursing a baby and driving with your elbows isn't very safe.

Plenty of social observers have tackled the fine points of cell-phone etiquette, but they can't possibly reach all of the 137.5 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. who are eager to play with their cool toys.

"This is a new technology and we have not yet created the best protocols to deal with it," says Carol Page. Page is founder of, an entertaining Web site where she fields questions from the cell-phone perplexed and supervises a lively cell-phone forum.

"We are only at the very beginning of an elaboration of the manners that are appropriate," she says. "We're sort of groping in the dark."

Yet, Page says, "If you are a civil person, if you are considerate of others, you know already that you should use a cell phone in a way that doesn't disrupt the comfort of others."

Inseparable appendage

But those counting on common decency perhaps forget themselves that a cell phone isn't just a cell phone.

It's fair to say that anyone's civility quotient might be compromised when in possession of a gadget capable of inflating, at least momentarily, an individual's self-esteem while expanding behavioral latitude in a most indiscreet manner.

The nagging, "Can you hear me?" mouthpiece quandary is further proof that the cell phone is a technological Pandora's box. In the interest of economy, a cell phone is designed so that the mouthpiece stops north of the mouth.

It's a psychologically disconcerting arrangement that prompts many to fear they can't be heard and to compensate by shouting. The world is rife with such "cell yell" culprits, as Page's Web site dubs them.

There are those for whom the cell phone has become an inseparable appendage, an electronic opposable thumb. And there are those whose lives are qualitatively the same as their cell phone-using counterparts, but have no use for the contraptions. At times, it seems the world is divided between the two camps.

Ned Eckhardt, for one, celebrates the cell phone at its most inane. "Probably 95 percent of all cell-phone calls are unimportant. People make them just to make themselves feel good," says Eckhardt, professor of communications at Rowan University in New Jersey. "This kind of spontaneous connection to another human being is very involving and fits into the warm, fuzzy Global Village feeling [media guru Marshall] McLuhan was sure the media was going to provide the planet."

Bad timing made easy

Others, such as P.M. Forni, are less generous.

"We live in a society in which privacy is almost a thing of the past," Forni says. He is founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin's, 2002, $20).

A phone call made in public "involves people even when they would prefer not to be involved," he says. "It's a sort of auditory, second-hand smoke, something to which you're exposed, even if unaddicted yourself. It's a concern, a factor having to do with quality of life on the threshold of the new century."

For all their convenience, cell phones can also add an extra level of undesirable unpredict- ability to our lives. Jennifer Dagdigian of Hamilton and her childhood sweetheart had just been declared man and wife last September and were about to walk down the aisle when his cell phone rang.

Her husband-to-be had been asked before the ceremony if he had turned his phone off. It wasn't necessary, he replied, because everybody who would ever call him was there. Nevertheless, the phone rang, everybody laughed, and the moment was captured on video. "We didn't even know who it was when we looked at the number," Jennifer says. Likely, it was a wrong number.

Cell phone calls, even from those you know, aren't always welcome. "I don't like being a time filler while someone's in their car," says Jessica C. Brown of Rodgers Forge. The justification for those calls, Brown says, can be summed up as, "Oh, I'm on my way to the store, I'm bored sitting in the car and there's nothing on NPR."

Private calls in public

The pervasiveness of cell phones has forced public institutions to devise guidelines for their use while not alienating their users.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library's policy, for example, takes into consideration its central role in making information accessible to customers.

"Cell phones are certainly welcome," says Wesley Wilson, chief of the State Library Resource Center. "As we operate in a world where information and being connected is part of daily life, cell phones are as integral to our lives as are computers."

Pratt library customers are allowed to use phones in the central hall or hallways "to provide them with the privacy they need to carry on a conversation," Wilson says.

On the other hand, cell phones are banned entirely from the Library of Congress, where close-circuit cameras catch chatty offenders hiding in the stacks and stairwells.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra prohibits cell-phone use in the Meyerhoff.

Phones are prohibited as well at Center Stage, but that hasn't stopped "countless" theater- goers' phones from ringing during performances, says Mike Watson, director of audience services.

"During one performance a patron on one side of the house called a patron on the other side to ask how he was liking the show," Watson says. Theater staff didn't learn of this incident until the next day. By that time, "the damage was done."

Usually, when a phone sounds, the Center Stage house manager will attempt to pinpoint the scofflaw and issue a tactful warning. If the warning isn't heeded, "we will evict," Watson says.

In New York City, where ring tones routinely disrupt concerts and plays, and performers occasionally step out of character to respond, the City Council approved an ordinance last December that would ban cell-phone use in public performance venues.

It is doubtful that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will sign the ordinance as it is virtually unenforceable. (The council could override the veto.)

"I don't think legislation is the way to deal with an issue of social behavior," Page says. "I think changing social mores is done by individuals making an effort time after time." Civil libertarians also argue that ordinances regulating such "ordinary daily activities" are unconstitutional more often than not.

In their work, some artists are acknowledging cell phones' aural ubiquity. In a preface to Dialtones, A Telesymphony, a concert performed entirely through the ring tones of audience cell phones, co-creator Golan Levin writes: "Announcers at every modern-day concert command us to turn off our cell phones," but what "aesthetic possibilities might we discover in leaving them on? What deranged beauty might we find, or what might we learn about our interconnected selves, in their high, pure tones?"

Composer John Adams' piece commemorating those who died on Sept. 11, On the Transmi-gration of Souls, memorably includes in its text part of a cell phone call made by a doomed flight attendant.

In class, not classy

Colleges and universities have had to navigate the brave new cell-phone world. Richard Di Dio, an associate professor of math and computer science at La Salle University in Philadelphia, is accustomed to students getting cell phone calls. "No matter how many warnings verbally stated, or listed in the syllabus, all faculty must develop ways to handle the inevitable ringing during the major point of a lecture, or during an exam. Also, you have to take steps to make sure students aren't tempted to cheat."

Di Dio enlists his students in his campaign for cellular silence by asking them to help formulate classroom policy concerning their use.

Cell-phone use guidelines have also been introduced into classes geared toward the service industry. Richard Stuthmann, director of culinary arts at Baltimore International College, reviews with aspiring restaurateurs "the politically correct way or proper way to explain to a customer, 'We encourage you to put your cell phone on vibrate or turn it off.'"

Mobile phones are an occasional annoyance in his line of work, says Gary DiGiovanni, funeral director at Ruck funeral home in Baltimore. "It's like [during] any other service. People carry them, and as long as they're going to carry them, they're going to ring. And they always ring at the worst time."

At the Sol Levinson & Brothers funeral home in Pikesville, signs remind visitors to turn off cell phones or put them on vibrate. "That's our way of trying to minimize the problem," says Ira Levinson, the firm's co-owner.

Gyms are also problematical. "If the gym doesn't ban a cell phone, it should," Page says. A loud conversation can ruin a weight lifter's concentration, not to mention interfere with the user's aerobic activity. "If you can't give yourself over to your workout, then don't go," she says.

But, "once you're in a locker room, then you're back in the real world" and entitled to use your cell phone -- circumspectly, Page says.

Whether you should subject others to a profanity-laced phone conversation while in the locker room or any other space is "almost a separate issue," Page says.

Bad language in public is inappropriate, "whether you're on a cell phone or not." Only a total jerk would subject others to such a conversation, Page says. Unfortunately, cell phones tend to expand jerks' roaming privileges.

Privacy forgotten

Those who choose silence are often segregated the way smokers are.

At Penn Station in Baltimore on a recent morning, the conductor made himself clear to those on the Metroliner to Washing-ton, D.C. "This is our quiet car," C. Armstrong announced. Then, with a bit of an edge, "No cell phones."

The car fills daily, he later said. "It is the most popular car on the train."

Elsewhere on the train, it's a challenge not to eavesdrop on cell-phone conversations that you probably shouldn't be hearing. "Not infrequently, I find myself sitting on an Amtrak train, listening to a loud cell-phone talker nearby conversing about confidential matters," says Mark S. Guralnick, a divorce lawyer who practices in Maryland and several other states. "It's not that the caller has bad etiquette ... but rather that the caller has become socially accustomed to making calls on the fly -- talking outdoors, in train cars, etc. -- and loses sight of the private nature of the conversation."

Any lawyer overheard discussing a client's case is violating the general ethics code which requires lawyers in most states "to keep secret anything learned in the course of representation," says Robert Condlin, who teaches a legal ethics course at the University of Maryland Law School.

Most of these conversations don't harm the client, much less become known to him or her. But a client who can be identified as a result of an overheard conversation is entitled to file a complaint that could lead to disciplinary charges and a malpractice claim against the attorney, Condlin says.

Lawyers who live in a place like Baltimore should be careful, he adds. "It is a small town and if you read the newspaper and Daily Record you know what's going on. When lawyers start talking about [a case], you can fill in the names pretty easily."

Name that tune

Ring tones are also an increasing source of irritation among the cell-phone sensitive. "The cell-phone companies go to a lot of trouble to sell interesting ring tones," Page says. "It's too bad. It's one of the greatest sources of annoyance. There's nothing worse than hearing the Yellow Rose of Texas when you're in the middle of an Egyptian art exhibit, as I was recently."

Page advocates keeping cell phones on vibrate, on "lamp," (a blinking light), or programming them to emit "a simple beep." She also thinks a discreet, electronic cough "would be a good idea."

As for how to handle the dilemma of whether to give your land line or cell phone priority when both are ringing, Page says it's a "practical matter" that depends on who has what number and from whom you're expecting a call. You can always answer one, tell the caller to hang on and answer the other, she says.

As those who reflexively reach for their cell phones to make and take calls know, that's easier said than done.

Cell phone etiquette, the street version, is as much about appearance as politeness. Oppenheimer says her son lectures her on her own cell phone comportment: "It's not enough just to walk down the street, talking -- you're supposed to walk briskly. Your choice of ring is crucial; you need to avoid things like Beethoven's Ninth. You're supposed to keep your voice low and pleasant at all times. Asking whether someone can hear you a dozen times is verboten, even if you really aren't sure.

Most important, you're supposed to use them nonstop."

How to behave with a cell phone

Cell phone dos and don'ts from Carol Page, cell phone etiquette consultant and founder of CellManners. com.


* Turn off your ringer. Keep it on vibrate or lamp mode to avoid startling people around you.

* Speak in a low voice. If you've got a lousy connection, no amount of yelling will fix it.

* Make it a habit to say thank you when you observe good cell-phone courtesy.


* Talk about personal matters on your cell phone. "The results of medical tests and relationship problems are the top two subjects visitors to CellManners complain most about overhearing," Page says.

* Answer your cell phone while talking with another person, unless that phone call is more important than the person you're with.

* Forget to turn your cell phone off when you go to performances, including movies, concerts and plays.

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