The rules about private conversations in public places were relaxed a long time ago. I think it was when school children started being loud and obnoxious on busses. My in-laws were visiting once and, since they were without their own car, chose to take a bus into town. It had been a while since they had used public transport, and they must have thought children were quiet and demure when out and about. I think they had imaginary Victorian children in mind, so it came as a shock to them to realize how wrong they were.
This week my attention was drawn to similarly annoying public behaviour: inappropriate cell phone use. Most people turn off their phones in theatres and restaurants these days, and I’m grateful for that. It seems to me, though, that there are still times when people forget the context in which they find themselves. In the last few days I noticed three people who seem totally unaware of their surroundings.
1. Standing with her cart by the artisan bread, a woman took out her cell phone and explained to the person at the other end that the store was out of the preferred loaf. She would get it next time she was at Whole Foods. She described all the available alternatives. I waited with three other customers until the long call ended so that we could get the bread we wanted.
2. On her way out of a crowded multiplex movie theatre during a film festival, a woman stopped in the doorway at the top of a stairwell to use her phone. She was going online to find out which theatre she needed to go to next. Dozens of people politely and carefully walked around her while trying not to fall down the stairs.
3. Leaning on her shopping cart, and slowly walking between the aisles at Target, a woman carried on a long conversation about something personal and unrelated to shopping. She was completely unaware that she was blocking my way and slowing me down.
These cell phone users weren’t loud, but they were in “the zone”. They were so engaged in their conversations that no other sights and sounds entered their consciousness. They did not even realize that other people were present and watching them. While cell phone etiquette is still evolving, I am prepared to allow people some leeway. But, really, people. Come on!
We know now that we shouldn’t use our phones while driving because it causes accidents, but I hope that one day soon we recognize that even when we aren’t driving it can still be anti-social. We are cutting people off just as rudely as if we deliberately disconnected in the middle of a phone call, and it’s just as annoying as when someone cuts in front of us on the highway.
Being cut off makes us irritated or even angry because it is a power play. It says you think your time, your space, your business is more important than mine. You are wrong, but I can’t explain it to you because you are on the phone, and it would be rude to interrupt.