Cell Phone Users Need to Call Miss Manners

A few years ago, I arrived at the beach house of a friend expecting to enjoy a weekend of socializing with the other guests. Instead, I sat on the backyard deck reading a magazine while the nine other people lounging on the deck chatted separately to persons unknown on their cell phones.

What would happen if all the people on the other end of those calls suddenly showed up, I wondered. Who would everyone talk to then? Was there some kind of cell phone cult protocol that required a certain number of people to always be waiting elsewhere to be reached out and touched?

That was a few years ago. Cell phone use has now established an expectation of immediate accessibility and availability in our culture with which you don't really have much choice but to comply. Our social and business customs have been so transformed that it's difficult to function without one. I resisted cell phones because, if anything, I'd like to make calls, and be called, less frequently. But instead, I just spend an inordinate amount of my time scavenging for functioning payphones. Suddenly, I feel like one of those weird people who still don't have e-mail. I'm getting a cell phone this weekend.

I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with this. The safety and convenience advantages of cell phones are undeniable. What disturbs me is that while the quantity of our communication capability has tremendously increased, the quality of that communication has dismally decreased.

The other night, a woman sharing a taxi with me also shared the most intimate details of her life as she chatted on her phone continuously for the duration of the cross-town ride. I learned about her health problems, her sex life, her financial woes, and her very creepy boss.

At the gym, people huff and puff into their phones while running on the treadmills and pumping their stair masters, unwilling to silence the ringing even during yoga class. People fight with their lovers while grocery shopping and conduct business deals during dinner parties. I find myself learning things about perfect strangers that I wouldn't want to know about my closest friends. There doesn't seem to be any personal information deemed too sensitive to be broadcast to a packed bus or train.

I don't mind when the woman sitting behind me on the train checks on her kids or the banker ahead of me at Starbucks lets his office know he's running late. But judging from the cacophony of conversation I am forced to overhear everyday, it seems Americans have fallen deeply in love with the sound of their own voices. Here's a flash to all you verbal exhibitionists out there: Your lives are not nearly as interesting as you think they are.

And then there are the friends and family who whip out their phones and dial up, or answer a call from, someone else when they're supposed to be dining, visiting or driving in a car with you. Or the people who will no longer agree on any definitive social plans, responding to every attempt to nail down a specific time or place with, "Well, just call me on my cell." Or the people who call you from their cell phones while they're driving, and make you hang on while they drive through tunnels and mountains and the connection fades in and out.

It seems pretty obvious to me that all of this is just plain bad manners, behavior that is in clear violation of the basic rules of common courtesy we were all taught as children. Our parents may not have been able to specifically teach us to turn our cell phones off in a theater or church or that it's rude to dial them up when in the live company of someone else, because cell phones didn't exist back then. But shouldn't we be able to extrapolate an appropriate technology etiquette from what we already know about polite behavior?

A New York City councilman was recently the center of a minor local media dust up because he proposed legislation that would fine people whose cell phones rang in theaters and concert halls. The local papers accused him of trying to legislate good manners. It's true, such a law would be the equivalent of a law prohibiting people from speaking with their mouths full. But apparently, it's necessary. After all, Queen Elizabeth was forced to issue an official ban on cell phone use within Buckingham Palace. Even the very proper English needed some government guidance on this one.

And what about the laws being enacted in communities across the country banning driving while on the phone? Wouldn't it seem that even a below average amount of common sense would allow us to figure this out for ourselves? Again, apparently not.

Maybe we can't for the same reason a close friend of mine wears her cell phone and pager strapped around her waist like a gun holster, swaggering into rooms under the technological weight of her own importance. A generation ago, she might have been the woman swathed in jewels and furs. Maybe technological devices are the jewelry of the new millennium, and what good is having them if you can't flash them around? How better to prove to the world you really are somebody than to be in constant demand by an unseen dialing throng?