time for a grouse

It does appear we have lost the battle of the Cell Phone…

What I mean is: any sense of restraint regarding public use.

It’s strange. Really not all that long ago – maybe 4 years? – we had a general cultural understanding that yakking on one’s phone in public indoor spaces was, well, rather rude. And that’s just vanished now. What to do?

Personally, I can’t get used to the idea. I know I should probably try harder, since clearly, as I say, we have lost, but it’s so hard. I will be sitting in a quiet space over lunch or tea, reading or reflecting, and suddenly … “HELLO? …” (and my head literally jolts backward as if struck). “HEY DUDE, YEAH, WUSSUP? … YEAH … YEAH … HUH? … OH, YEAH … NAH … WHAT? … YEAH … NAH I’M JUST EATING LUNCH … HUH?” And on and on, for 5, 10 … 30 minutes. So I give up, put the book down or stop reflecting, and start fuming… What is wrong with me? Why can’t I accept this is the way it is now?

But I find it ridiculously hard. And I’m certainly not alone. One of the owners of a place where I eat lunch all the time tells me he feels exactly the same way, even more so, since he would prefer if people didn’t even pull out laptops and tablets, but rather took the opportunity to unplug for awhile and have a peaceful, relaxed meal. A teahouse in MontrĂ©al, I’m told – I think Camellia Sinensis – has adopted that policy in fact.

What to do, what to do? Once or twice I have seen someone actually get up and very firmly tell the phone yakker that they really ought to walk the 20 steps or so to be outdoors – they can still talk, but no one else is bothered. Usually, I’m a coward in this: I just privately fume.

What is it about this? After all, a loud conversation nearby can be distracting too. I think it’s a combination of different things:

1) There’s something inherently private about a phone call. Traditionally they only occurred, after all, in private spaces: one’s home, or a (closed) phone booth. So when they go off and you hear the loud (see point 3) “HELLO?,” I at least have the sensation of being an eavesdropper, of – more to the point – being forced to be an eavesdropper. There’s just something not … quite … fully decent about it somehow.

2) Since you are only ever hearing one half of a conversation, the experience is disorientating, and thus pulls you in. It’s distracting in the way something on the radio continually cutting out is, or the way a film would be if it kept flashing on and off. We naturally strive to fill in gaps in perception, and cell phones continuously stimulate that tendency, while definitively denying us any possibility of success. And that very fact is what makes them startling, makes them endlessly interrupt concentration. Not an issue for most people having a conversation themselves there, but an effective destroyer of peaceful public space for those of us who still greatly value such a thing.

3) Most people, not all but most, do talk more loudly on a cell phone.

So yes, I should try harder to get used to it. There are still places – blessed be they! – who maintain cell-phone-free environments, but they have dwindled rapidly in recent years. The other day I was told by someone who works at one of these that after asking a customer if he might simply step outside to finish his call, said customer responded quite irately, left altogether, then phoned 10 minutes later to complain further! Amazing: it’s now even become something of a “right” … And I mean, people even gabber on them in libraries now, even blatantly within yards of the sign saying: please no cell phones… (That, by the way, is where I do take charge.)

Not at all a healthy development, if you ask me.

This is leaving aside the fact that, more and more, that annoyingly ugly MIDI jingle (or more sedate buzz) signalling an incoming phone call or text, causes the person you thought you were having a conversation with to cut you off: “excuse me, I just need to take this call…” Actually, no, 9 times out of 10 you really don’t need to take that call. Your mind has just been marinating in a super-speedy high-octane cacophonously hyper-distracted culture for too many years, and… AARGH!

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