Political privacy in a crowded shopping center

Troublemaker Eugene Volokh believes that you have just as much right to talk to someone over the telephone as you do in person! Critiquing Robin Wallace's idea that it's bad to discuss personal business in public, Professor Volokh distinguishes between rudeness (talking during performances or concerts) and simple discussions with friends or family:

Now back to the first two paragraphs (and setting aside the conversations in the yoga class and the dinner party, which I agree are generally rude, setting aside extenuating circumstances). Imagine that the writer had been sharing a cab with two other people, who were saying the same things to each other in person, or overheard two people conversing in the gym or the grocery store. Would he have said that it was rude for them to talk to each other? Well, maybe, if they really were quite graphic in dicussing their sex lives. But I had never, until the advent of the cell phone, heard of people complaining "I was on a bus -- or at a grocery store or in the gym -- and two people were complaining about their creepy bosses and their financial woes; how rude!"

Talking to a friend in public is generally seen as perfectly well-mannered behavior, if one isn't too loud, one isn't socially obligated (or, in the case of driving, obligated by the needs of safety) to pay attention to others, and one stays away from a small set of extremely private topics. In fact, it's often thought of as good -- instead of shopping or riding in solitude, one gets to socialize with a friend. As a matter of manners, I don't see any reason why the rule should be different when one is talking on a phone to a friend who's physically absent.

Volokh's a man after my heart, and not only did he remind me of a previous post, he also reminded me of an incident at a local shopping center which might shed some light on the emerging anti-cellphone mentality.

There I was, staring intently at one of those huge display maps, trying to figure out the location of particular store when my cell phone rang, and I dared to answer it. Lo and behold, it was Justin, and yes, I confess, we dared to chat. At some point, an issue in the blog came up (I can't remember what, but it wasn't especially earthshaking), and while I was talking, a total stranger walked right up to me and snapped, "ARE YOU TALKING TO YOURSELF?" Nonplussed, my reaction was to say "YES! I LOVE TO TALK TO MYSELF!" The guy stormed away, looking even more annoyed, with one of those "there ought to be a law!" looks on his face.

Now, I was wearing an earbud, and I know that this might be confusing to some people, especially the technologically unsophisticated. But I think my earbud is obvious. I have short hair and I make no attempt to hide the thing, and the man who came out of his way to barge into the conversation was considerably younger than I am. He appeared to be in his mid thirties, and was wearing glasses, which meant he could probably see. And he obviously could hear. While it's all unprovable and speculative, I think he just didn't agree with what he heard me saying to Justin (which I'm pretty sure was political in nature.) I very much doubt this same man would have come up to me had Justin been there and I'd said exactly the same thing. Nor do I think he'd have been as annoyed had I really been some mental case talking to myself. I think he knew damned well I wasn't talking to myself, and this was just his way of being rude.

He, of course, would say that it was rude of me (or "exhibitionistic") to discuss politics. In a shopping center. He'd probably also opine I shouldn't have been "sharing" my "personal life."

Not that such a characterization of my conversation would make any difference.

If the personal is now political, then the political must now be personal!

I have some lingering questions. Is it ruder to discuss politics over a cell phone than to discuss "personal" issues? Is it ruder to use an earbud than to hold the phone to your ear? Is the polite thing to crawl into the darkness somewhere and hunch over? This is an evolving area of etiquette and I am not sure. I prefer not to talk on my cellphone in public, but if it rings in a place like a shopping center, if I'm alone I'll tend to answer it.

Rights are one thing. I was well within them legally. But are there rules?

Bear in mind that I was slow to get a cell phone, as I dislike telephones of any sort because I have problems with interruptions. I do have friends who are possessed of the "I refuse to get a cellphone ever!" mentality, and while I'm somewhat sympathetic, I think they're making too big a deal out of what is just another way of communicating.

posted by Eric on 06.27.05 at 11:21 AM


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adam   ·  June 27, 2005 2:29 PM

I often talk to myself, particularly while thinking out my ongoing saga of Dawn vs. Wanda, et. al., which is my main preoccupation 24/7, my main project in this life. I don't give a damn what other people think, and I'm far better company for me than are the jerks who think they have a right to horn in on somebody else's private conversation, whether with himself/herself or with an alter ego. Who wants to talk to THEM??

It's hard to argue with Volokh's logic, but I still find cell phone users annoying in a way I that don't find people in conversations annoying.

First, for some reason, it's more distracting when you can only hear half a conversation. If I can follow it more easily, I can also tune it out more easily (maybe on some level I think the mystery person's talking about me, or maybe they're giving a great stock tip I'm missing out on, I don't know, but it's more annoying).

Second, people tend to talk louder on the cell phone than in a conversation, aggrevating the previous issue. Cell phones often really add to the racket around you.

Cell phones go together with video games, ipods, and all that other portable electronic crap that are rendering us unable to just sit quietly with our thoughts. Destroying our capacity for reflection (this goes for the person using the phone as much as for the people around him).

byrd   ·  June 27, 2005 3:45 PM

Me, I've got the ongoing saga of Ginger vs. Maryann.

But anyhoo....

What bugs me about public cell phone use are two things:

1) the volume of the conversation: for some reason, people tend to talk much louder when on the phone. Not everyone on the bus needs to know "mmhmmm... yeah... well I hope that infection clears up...".

2) the fakery: too often, people (particularly women) will pretend to talk on a cell phone when they don't want to interact with whomever they may be around. This can be humorous though if that person's cell phone rings while they are in the middle of an imaginary conversation.

Ed Minchau   ·  June 27, 2005 3:55 PM

I think that people often overreact to cell phones and see using them as rude even if the conversation were held in person, they would not see it as rude.

I used to be one of those "I'll never get a cell phone" people until they eliminated public pay phones. Also, they are absolutely indispensible when moving to another city.

John   ·  June 27, 2005 6:23 PM

Ginger vs. Maryann -- excellent.

One reason, however, why those talking on cell phones tend to be so loud is because it's often next to impossible for the other person to hear what you're saying, particularly when you're on the street with a bunch of cars going by, on a crowded bus, etc., and it's about equally next to impossible for the other person to hear what you're saying while you're in those situations. For that reason, I use my cell phone only when necessary. For any extended convesation (e.g., when talking far into the night with my friend Robin Georg Olsen), I use a regular phone.

What the ----???? Somehow I garbled that last post up completely! What I meant to say was that the parties at both ends of a cell-phone conversation find it next to impossible to hear what the other party is saying, especially if either or both is in a crowded situation such as on a bus, the street, etc., and, so, therefore, they talk real loud so they can hear each other. It's like two nearly-deaf people shouting at each other.

I think part of the problem is a collision of manners: there's telephone manners, and public manners, which govern two spheres of activity that used to be separate, but now, thanks to cell-phones, are not.

Raging Bee   ·  June 28, 2005 2:52 PM

Yes, I think raging Bee has it. It seems cell users do not know that there are manners for the public sphere. One such is to ensure that one's behavior does not make others uncomfortable.
No one "needs" to be on a cell phone. It is distracting to many people who are only hearing half of a story and cannot tune it out.
I have a cell phone, i just use it in emergencies only and i put it on vibrate if I "must" have it on.

Big boi   ·  June 28, 2005 5:20 PM

I have never--and I do mean never--had any sympathy at all for the "I can't stand when people talk on their cell phones in public" folks. I do not even currently own a cell phone, and I find the bitching about this utterly silly.

Yes, it's annoying if they speak especially loudly, but otherwise it's none of your damned business. Get over it. Maybe it's because I was always taught that eavesdropping is rude, so I don't care whether I'm hearing half or all of a conversation--I pay no attention either way.

This very much reminds me of a now all but forgotten mentality that used to be common: bitching about answering machines. "I refuse to talk to a machine!" used to be something adults actually said as some sort of proud anti-technology statement. From my perspective, all they were really expressing was a mild psychosis.

We went through some of this crap when things like call-waiting became available too. "Call waiting is just rude!" used to be the thing people said about that. "It's so rude to have my conversation interrupted by clicking!" (Yet they never bitched when someone said, "Excuse me, I have to answer the door" or "Excuse me, my wife/brother/mother/whoever needs to ask me a quesiton." No, THAT wasn't rude, but the little innocuous call-waiting "click" was rude.

Feh. Get over it, people.

Dean Esmay   ·  June 28, 2005 10:03 PM

"No one 'needs' to be on a cell phone."

That's what you think, and I'm here to tell you that it's pretty bloody presumptuous to go around shooting off your yap about what other people "need" in a context like this.

I resisted them for years. (I told employers who wanted me to carry them: "You don't have enough money to make me carry a cell phone. Forget it.") I got with it last year for one reason only: it can make life crucially easier in moments when I'm travelling in my work and things don't go according to plan. My cell phone has saved my ass several times out there in the Big Bounce around America, and that's what counts to me. I do my best to keep it out of other peoples' faces, and I only point out that they would do well to treat me the same way.

That person in the shopping center would have bought himself a bad day.

Billy Beck   ·  June 29, 2005 12:52 PM

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