Cell Phones 1, Civil Society 0

4 min read

The man standing in line behind me answers the call on speakerphone, and we all learn his friend has a UTI and will not be coming over tonight. Behind him, a young woman tells a friend she will pick up tacos and, yes, she knows the friend doesn’t like those “nasty beans.”

UTIs and nasty beans. Such is life now in the pharmacy pick-up at Walgreens.

In my morning walks in the park, I often stop and wait for a Chatty Cathy to pass me up so I do not have to hear her explain how the darker blue tile might work better in the shower. As I do laps at the gym, I get snippets of phone calls from people sitting in the comfy chairs in the middle—somebody got into grad school, somebody else dyed their hair green. The guy in the seat next to me on the plane dictates his responses to emails. I now know the base cost of a grade school meal in South Burlington, Vermont.

Dark blue tiles, green hair, and tater tots. That’s what I have in my head instead of my own thoughts. Human banalities drown everything else out.

Doesn’t anybody talk at home anymore?

Have I, have we, totally lost this battle? Have we just given up and given in? Is it now officially Cell phones 1, Civil society 0? Have we ceded the privacy of our conversations and the quiet of our public spaces to the chatter of the clueless?

Lack of Respect

Public phone calls, especially on the evil speakerphone, smack of disrespect for the people around us. And it’s worse because people tend to talk louder on their phones than they do in regular conversations. After all, they have to speak over the people they are annoying.

No matter how many years we’ve fought this battle, I remain bewildered by friends who take phone calls when I am with them, leaving me to listen to their grandchildren babble merrily in the background. (My friend smiles at me, as though to ask, “Aren’t they cute?” No, in fact, I’m not thinking so. I am thinking of many other things, but not that.)

Responses That Can Work

Asking strangers to stop talking on their phones is, unfortunately, not wise. Too many volatile folks lurk in our midst. In the case of public interactions, simple avoidance is the best option—either move away from the guy pacing the airport waiting area in his expensive brown shoes and booming voice or put your earbuds in and listen to your own music.

But there’s something else you can do to keep the problem from happening in the first place: First, you can stop being that person who is invading everybody else’s peace. Second, if you are on the other end of the line, you can ask for the conversation to continue later, when your friend or colleague is at home or back at the office.

For friends, being proactive is always the best tactic, reminding them that you are another person in the room, not a footstool.

If a friend keeps their phone on the table, put yours next to it and propose a bet: The first person who takes a call pays for the meal. Then turn yours off.

If your friend’s phone rings, jump in before they answer it and ask politely, “Can you wait to take that until we’re through with our visit? Unless it is essential, of course.” If they are waiting for a call from the doctor or plumber or priest, OK. But Pinky can call later to make lunch plans to which I am not invited.

Once a call has started, I don’t have the guts to intervene, but I know of others who say something like, “I can see you are busy. Let’s meet another time.” And they leave. I have dreamed of doing this but have never succeeded. Requires way too much moxie. The time might come, though.

This may seem like a small thing, but it is a metaphor for how we think of other people—or don’t. How do we even start to settle our giant problems if we cannot show basic consideration for the other humans in the line at Walgreens?

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