Dispatch from the war over cell phones

Can't we all just get along? A humble proposal for a new cell-phone etiquette

When is it OK to talk in public? To have an audible ring tone? To reply to a text message? Rational people disagree -- strongly. As the war between these two tribes grinds on, new battlefields are opened.

Airline authorities abroad have granted air carriers permission to allow passengers to make and receive calls with their own cell phones in flight. By the end of 2008, passengers in France, Turkey, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and other countries will be chatting away at cruising altitude on every flight.

The news prompted US Representative Peter DeFazio to write legislation banning in-flight calls, even though nobody is even talking about allowing calls on domestic flights in the US. DeFazio is pandering to clear public opposition to the use of cell phones on airplanes in the US. My own prediction is that by 2010, in-flight cell-phone calls will become commonplace around the world but will remain banned in the land of the free.

Passengers are divided even abroad in countries that now allow it. Some see it as progress, others fear constant in-flight chatter.

As a compromise, Australia and New Zealand will allow SMS texting, but not voice cell calls.

Airplanes are the latest battlefield, but most forms of public transportation are contentious. French, German, Danish and Finnish railways have designated phone-free zones on trains. But Sweden dumped similar phone-free zones on trains and buses less than one year after establishing them. People realized how useful their travel time was to catch up on calls.

In the war over cell phones, only one fact is clear: Universally agreeable rules are nowhere in sight.

The trouble with cell phone etiquette

Yahoo HotJobs' annual virtual workplace survey, published this week, queried respondents about which cell-phone behaviors are rudest. Here are the five actions deemed most offensive (in order from most to least):

  • Accepting a personal call while in a meeting or presentation
  • Answering the phone or e-mails while at a business dinner
  • Talking on the phone while in the bathroom
  • Talking on the phone while in close quarters (such as on a train, plane or bus)
  • Answering a work call or e-mail during personal time after work hours

But these apparent consensus-based rules of thumb don't even come close to addressing all the situations where using a cell phone is or is not acceptable.

A few weeks ago, I found myself working at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. Two men came in and sat down in the upstairs seating area. They immediately opened their laptops, dialed their cell phones and proceeded to make a long series of business calls for the next three hours. Their calls were loud; they were practically shouting. Incredibly, nobody in the Starbucks minded at all.

I'm quite certain that the exact same behavior in many Starbucks stores across the country would have been met with dirty looks and complaints. But not there. I don't care what rules are applied and by whom, you're never going to get New Yorkers to always speak in hushed tones or do business only in private. (When Rudolph Giuliani tried to enforce jaywalking rules in Manhattan, he was almost laughed out of office. Public cell-phone talking is like that.)

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