Note: I wrote this in university at a time when cell phones were still shocking people at how they were used in public and in social settings. Kind of neat to look back on this. References are at the end. Enjoy!
Our new cellular world
As I sat in a coffee shop researching for this very assignment I found myself diagonal to a woman who spoke on her cell phone. Nothing was unusual about her behaviour for, as will be seen later in this essay, it has become common practice to take calls in public. However, things became uncomfortable when this woman suddenly broke into tears. Her completely private moment became public simply by the fact that I could openly witness her distress. Her company came walking by as though everything were normal to put her beverage on the table and, despite the intensity of the moment, the crying woman gestured to her present friend that the lid she had gotten for her was the wrong size. She got up and got one herself. Here the social importance of the present environment – having the right lid to fit on her paper cup – took precedence over giving full attention to the friend on the phone who made her cry for being such a good companion! Moments later the phone call ended and the woman seemed to be in a completely different world; she sat perfectly fine chatting with her company over refreshments. Here we see a person entertaining two social relationships at the same time while being able to separate each into specific environments.
This essay will argue that cell phones are defining new social rules about what is acceptable behaviour in public and thus transforming the ways, times, places and situations in which we communicate with people and deem it appropriate to do so. It will start by drawing on the work of Humphreys to see how society is reacting to this new definition of public space. It will look briefly at our current use and dependency on cell phones to point out that, whether we like it or not, they’re here to stay. Finally, we will look at different examples of how different groups of people are handling the effect of the cell phone with its ability to intrude on previously exclusive social environments.
The above example of the crying woman on a cell phone in public is very similar to the examples that Humphreys gives in her article, Cellphones in public: social interactions in a wireless era. As Humphreys states, “Cellphones allow for communication on multiple fronts simultaneously” (Humphreys, 2005). That is precisely what the woman did, as explained earlier. This theory, however, stems from what Goffman, oft quoted in Humphreys, terms “cross talk” (2005). “Cross talk” happens when one member of a party begins having a conversation with someone who is not part of that party. This situation puts the excluded member in an uncomfortable spot. In order to counter these feelings of unease, both parties behave in new ways so as to ‘blanket’ the situation, making everything seem normal (Humphreys, 2005).
For the person left out, the new behaviour can be looked at as one of many “self-defense mechanisms to alleviate the anxiety and vulnerability of suddenly becoming a Single and feeling left out.” This can include a number of activities, such as using their own electronic devices, reading, or anything else that would appear to “create a ‘private space’” for the person having another conversation. The person involved in “cross talk” (Goffman, qtd. in Humphreys, 2005), whom we will now assume to be talking on their cell phone, has the harder job. Knowing that their current activity is an unwanted one, they will behave so as to either defend what they’re doing, or look apologetic. One person interviewed by Humphreys confessed his way of hiding the guilt involved in “cross talk”:
“Depending on whom I’m talking to, I don’t really make eye contact with the person who’s there. I think I tend to do that intentionally I guess because in a way it makes it, the call, seem really important” (Subject 10, qtd. in Humphreys, 2005).
Others interviewed and observed would have two conversations at the same time, just like the crying woman in the coffee shop. While speaking to someone on the phone (whom, it is socially understood, they should not be talking to at the moment), they would speak to the other party member with gestures or facial expressions. For example, “People communicated frustration with the cellphone call through eye rolling or motioning with their hands for the conversation to hurry up” (Humphreys, 2005). Another way to deal with the situation is to simply apologize, verbally, to both parties, either during or after the conversation (Humphreys, 2005).
Here we see that two social situations are competing with one another. This could happen in a world without cell phones, but, as Humphreys notes, there are less barriers with cell phones. A third party who can physically see that two people are having a serious, or intimate time together, would be more sensitive to the situation and could decide not to invade. But with the cell phone, there is no way for such information to be relayed to the intruder (2005). For this reason, it can be argued we are seeing a shift in what our societies believe to be appropriate behaviour. Humphreys describes this transformation process:
“New media, in particularly cellphones, are quickly surrounded by common social rules and dilemmas. New technologies provide a new place for people to work out these problems and socialize in ways with which they are already familiar. Over time, these interactions create a whole new social landscape” (2005).
This brings us to our next topic, the fact that, despite the annoyances involved with the presence of cell phones in previously exclusive environments, the technology is here to stay. Humphreys’ study showed that although people found it rude to be interrupted by a cell phone call, people also found it “‘rude’” to reject a call using Caller ID. Humphreys’ research also showed that people do not like to miss their calls, for of course, that is one of the underlying concepts of having a cell phone in the first place. There is a general anxiety over missing something important (2005). Interestingly, the research also shows a shift in attitude towards call screening, which reflects the changing attitudes people are adopting towards the cell phone. There is a growing realization the devices are becoming ingrained in our daily systematic way of living. Humphreys states: “Several respondents initially had negative responses, but then came around to say, ‘Well, I guess everyone does it’. One respondent said, ‘I guess that since it’s expected, then it doesn’t bother me so much’” (2005).
According to market researcher Robbie Blinkoff, a new class of people called “mobiles” has been created (qtd. in Batista, 2003). These types of people are “heavy users of wireless technology” and tend to form relationships around each other, excluding those who might not have a mobile communication device (Batista, 2003). Research also found that teenagers were most likely to fall into this category and a recurring theme was “a group of teenagers sitting together — all with ears glued to cell phones — talking with faraway friends rather than to each other” (Batista, 2003). Interestingly, the behaviour among the teenagers is not looked at as being “rude” (2003). In fact, it’s cool: “not having a cell phone is ‘like having last year’s sneakers,’” according to one market researcher (2003). Falling in line with Humphreys, another market researcher quoted in Batista says that cell phones are “‘another opportunity to create norms and accepted behavior’” (2003).
However, this view is not shared by everyone. According to Batista, there exists a cell phone “backlash”–our third topic. People who hate cell phones can visit Web sites such as cellmanners.com to promote ‘polite’ usage of the technology. Cellmanners.com is self-dubbed “The Last Repository of Decent Behaviour in Technology.” One forum subject reads: “Tales From The Cell Wars: Wanna tell a story about confronting an ill-mannered technological tyrant? Voice your heroism here!” (Cellmanners.com, TimD, 2006).
There is also “etiquette” training for those who desperately need advice on how to properly use their cell phones, so much so they are willing to pay “thousands of dollars” for it. The “‘Techno-Etiquette’ seminar” pretty much sums up to learning that they should “let their voicemail pick up calls during a meeting. If they had to take the call…they excuse themselves from the table and not discuss personal matters that others can overhear” (Batista, 2001). Public relations at SprintPCS has also responded to the perceived rudeness of cell phones by participating in “National Courtesy Month” (held in September by the way). The company not only hired the “Techno-Etiquette” teacher for marketing purposes but also gave away flowers and “cards with courtesy guidelines” for the event (Batista, 2001).
Safety reasons also have organizations like the American AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety worried about cell phones. Again, falling in line with Humphreys and Goffman about cell phone calls being able to take precedence over ‘here-and-now” situations, their sponsorship report on using cell phones while driving indicates that “it does seem to extend somewhat the delay in responding. When a non-ur gent situation arose while a call was being placed, many subjects delayed responding until they had completed the call” (McNight and McNight, 1991). Some countries have even banned cell phone use while driving altogether. The dozens of nations with this imposed rule include Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Jordan, some states in the U.S. and, as of 2002, Newfoundland, Canada (Cellular-News, n.d.).
Banning of cell phones has also occurred in “‘places of public performance’” in New York City. This also reflects the social annoyance with cell phones. As noted by Batista, places traditionally looked upon as being ‘quiet zones’ (libraries, cinemas, etc.) are warning users to keep their cell phones silent.
Addiction seems to be a problem underlying the frustration with the ‘backlashers.’ Perhaps that is why the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago very recently implemented a service to kindly lock up your BlackBerry – otherwise known as “CrackBerry” – or other communication technology so you can have a “break” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2006). As the Microsoft ad for Windows Mobile says, “Where you work is now entirely up to you” (Microsoft, n.d.). The only problem is, working on the communication device can be a never-ending headache, according to the hotel manager at the Chicago Sheraton. He said he had to “‘quit cold turkey’” and recommends the same for others “so they can concentrate on meetings, business and socialising while at the hotel,” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2006) again, landing us back at Humphrey and the low appreciation of cell phone use in previously exclusive environments. To add a cherry on top of the addiction argument (and a little laugh), one research group found that 39 per cent of mobile users “said they would answer a call in the bathroom” (Batista, 2001). Those in another study, both “moderate cell-phone users” but especially the “mobiles” could not handle the grief of not having their cell phones with them when the researchers tried to take the devices away “for a few days” (Batista, 2003).
To conclude, we have seen that, firstly, cell phones are creating new, and often uncomfortable and annoying, social situations. While the younger generation of teenagers seem to handle the growing phenomenon of public cell phone use pretty well, the generation that sees this as a relatively new onset is still trying to cope with the fact that the new communication media are here to stay. That in turn means rules of ‘politeness’ will have to change. Some simply refuse the negative social effects of the technology, and find ways of dealing with their grief through sharing stories and bonding with those who feel the same way online. Some seek help to be able to balance their urgent need to use communication devices with the need to still please those who are offended by the technology in public. In some situations, however, cell phone use is being regarded as unacceptable, such as while driving or watching some form of public entertainment. Finally, we have seen that addiction is likely an underlying problem to the negative perceptions of cell phone use in public. It is important to see that the traditional social rules are not being immediately replaced by new ones as a result of the cell phone, but rather are being slowly redefined in light of the relatively new technology. Just like wearing braces on one’s teeth will likely hurt at first, after a long process of slowly shifting the teeth in a certain direction by the implantation of technology, the end result will be a positioning that seems perfectly normal and acceptable, perhaps even organic, to all the other parties involved.
Batista, E. (2001, September 6). The Miss Manners of Cell Phones. Wired News. http://www.wired.com/news/wireless/0,1382,46448,00.html
Batista, E. (2003, May 16). She’s Gotta Have It: Cell Phone. Wired News. Retrieved June 12, 2006 from http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,58861,00.html
Cellular-News. (n.d.). Countries that ban cell phones while driving. Cellular-News. Retrieved June 12, 2006 from http://www.cellular-news.com/car_bans/
Humphreys, L. (2005). Cellphones in public: social interactions in a wireless era. New Media and Society, 7(6), 810-833. Retrieved June 12, 2006 from Darryl Cressman [email protected]
McKnight, J. and McKnight S. (1991). The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention. Retrieved June 12, 2006 from http://www.aaafoundation.org/resources/index.cfm?button=cellphone#a14
Reuters. (2006, June 9). Hotel offers to relieve you of your BlackBerry. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved June 12, 2006 from http://www.smh.com.au/news/phones–pdas/hotel-offers-to-relieve-you-of-your-blackberry/2006/06/09/1149815292741.html