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The Death of Phone Manners

Sunday, June 7th, 2009
noise pollution

I found a seat on the subway and within seconds a middle-aged man sat next to me and began sending text messages. Or maybe he was playing a video game. All I know is that I could hear EVERYTHING he was doing and it was terribly annoying. Beep, boop, beep, beep, boop…

I gave him the death stare. He didn’t notice. I coughed a few times and leaned closer. He still didn’t budge.

Didn’t this guy understand that what he was doing was, well, rude? Couldn’t he FEEL the irritation of the people around him? No, in fact, he couldn’t. And the reason is simple: his mother didn’t know she would have to teach him these particular manners since this technology didn’t exist when he was a kid.

In the early days of communication, the rules of conduct were simple. Since the phone was generally confined to a wall at home, the office or the phone booth it was straightforward. Walkietalkies were used by the military or cops. Video signals were confined to that enormous television set in the living room. And cameras were pulled out on vacations or special occasions. (NOT a trip to the mall.)

Eventually, the wall phone gave way to the cordless phone, walkie-talkies gave way – in a sense – to the pager (‘beeper’ to you older folks) and everything James Bond and the guys from Star Trek were carrying started to look more and more likely to eventually end up in our pockets.

Today’s communication equipment rolls all of that stuff into one tiny little annoyingly convenient package. And with it comes all of the problems that those more primitive technologies presented, except 10 times as bad.

The result? A new generation of people who can no longer communicate effectively face to face, can hardly spell and don’t care if the rest of the world wants them to shut the hell up.

Before I call anyone out on bad manners, I must first admit that I have been guilty of one or more of these offenses as recently as yesterday. But I am working on it. I swear.

In the ‘70s when I was a small child, we had one telephone mounted on the wall in the kitchen. There were strict, but simple rules regarding its use:

Calls were limited to 10 minutes, since call waiting wasn’t invented yet. That way, my mother said, if one of our relatives died, we would be able to find out.

If the phone rang while the family was at the dinner table, we were forbidden to answer it. Not an easy feat with five kids ranging in age from 8 to 18.

After 10 p.m., no more phone calls. Period.

In the ‘80s, the rules changed slightly. We moved to a new place, there were only two kids left at home and we now had three phones, one of which was cordless.

If call waiting beeps, you must answer it. This is because caller I.D. wasn’t widely available. Again, the possibility of a dead relative and my mother’s desire not to miss the news.

If the phone rang while we were at the dinner table, it usually meant someone was calling to get us to change our long distance provider. Rock, paper, scissors to decide who answers it.

If you were on the phone after 10 p.m., you must use the cordless and go into your room.

As you can see, these rules were straightforward and didn’t require any great sacrifices. But now we jump ahead 20 years and my mother would have had to make a list two or three pages long.

What follows is the short version of what she would have demanded of us.

Keep your phone on silent at all times. NOBODY wants to hear your Celine Dion ringtone.

Keep your touchpad on silent as well. NOBODY wants to hear you sending messages or dialing numbers.

Do not take pictures of yourself while enjoying a coffee at Starbucks. Vanity is a very unattractive trait. In fact, don’t use the camera on your phone in public at all. For Koreans: Do not stop to take pictures of foreigners on the street. Ever. It is NOT okay.

Do not sing out loud in crowded, public places when listening to music on your phone/MP3 player. Nobody wants to hear your version of 50 Cent, the Wonder Girls or Celine Dion. NOBODY.

If the phone rings while dining in public, answer it, say you are eating and will call the person back, then make sure it is on silent. NOBODY wants to hear you talk about how much of a dick your hagwan director is while they are trying to enjoy themselves.

If you are playing a video game on your phone/MP3 player/PMP, wear headphones or keep it on silent. NOBODY wants to hear you blasting away at some evil alien invader.

When using a hands-free device, wear it so people can see that you are actually talking to someone and not just chatting up yourself. It is important to not look like a crazy person when walking down the street.

If all you are going to say into your phone is “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…uh, uh, uh…nay,” please hang up. You obviously have nothing to say and just want attention. NOBODY wants to give you the positive kind of attention you obviously crave.

My mother would have gone into greater detail and it would be a constantly evolving list as the technology changes, but I think it’s a good starting point. Please share these rules with your friends and total strangers. And if you text them, keep your keypad on silent. Thank you and I’ll call you back when I’m done peeing.

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