Image: Cell phone savvy
Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
The boundaries between public and private have gotten blurry now that we can yak wirelessly on buses, trains and subways, and in restaurants, waiting rooms, theaters and as we roll our carts up and down the supermarket aisles, writes MSNBC.com's Well-Mannered Traveler.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/12/2007 10:19:16 AM ET 2007-04-12T14:19:16

I might just send a smooch-encrusted fan letter to the folks at the Federal Communications Commission. Perhaps you’d like to add a smooch of your own.

The agency recently announced that, for now, it will keep in place rules banning cell phone use on airplanes. That’s a victory for those of us who have been dreading the idea of enduring long flights belted in between seatmates chatting away on cell phones and worrying about being expected to field work calls while in flight. “I’d rather be strapped to the wing!,” one frequent traveler told me.

Half of all Americans now have cell phones. Someday everyone will. But as use of these handy and sometimes life-saving devices spreads, so too will the incidence of people using their phones inappropriately in public spaces. I recently heard a lawyer in a public restroom stall negotiating the details of her client’s divorce. And as headsets get smaller and smaller I find it harder and harder to tell if someone is trying to strike up a conversation with me or simply calling home to their sweetie.

Except for speaker-phone conference calls and “Grab the upstairs extension, honey” situations, a phone call has traditionally been a between-two-people activity. But the boundaries between public and private have gotten blurry now that we can yak wirelessly on buses, trains and subways, and in restaurants, waiting rooms, theaters and as we roll our carts up and down the supermarket aisles.

This public blabbing is getting bothersome.

Wireless retailer Letstalk.com, which conducts an annual survey about cell phone etiquette, reports that over the past few years we’ve become less tolerant of others using cell phones on public transportation, in restaurants and theaters, and in bathrooms. Joni Blecher, Senior Manager, Content & Community for LetsTalk, doesn’t think those boundaries will “bend very much” when this year’s survey gets underway. If anything, she says, “We’ll see more people more opposed to using cell phones on public transportation.”

So Blecher joins me and travelers everywhere who’ve ever had to listen to someone else’s boring cell phone call in urging everyone to become cell-phone savvy.

“People need to be mindful of their actions,” says Blecher, “If you’re on a bus or some form of public transportation and feel you must take a call, limit your conversation to two minutes. Don’t go on and on about your day. Not everyone is interested.” She also points out that when you conduct a phone call in a public place you never know who may be listening. “That divorce lawyer in the bathroom stall didn’t know if the lawyer for the other party was in another stall,” now did she?

What else does it take to be cell-phone savvy? Start with these basic rules and you’ll be well on your way:

  • Don’t make or take calls when you’re in a confined space such as a bus, train, restaurant, doctor’s waiting room or anyplace where those around you will be forced to listen.
  • Turn your phone off completely during public performances such as concerts, lectures, movies, your child’s piano recital, plays, and yes, even sports events. And if you forget, don’t pretend that’s not your pocket ringing, singing or imitating the mating call of some wild animal. Turn the phone off immediately and under no circumstances answer it.
  • Don’t dial and drive. Don’t text and drive. And if you’re going to talk and drive, be honest about whether or not you can really give the road your full attention even while using a hands-free head set.    
  • DON’T YELL. Background noise where you are is what causes you to raise your voice on a cell phone. Look around; if people are giving you the hairy eyeball, lower your voice, call back later or take the conversation elsewhere.

And what can you do if someone else is lacking cell phone savvy?

In many public places you can simply walk away or change your seat. In enclosed spaces you might try tapping the yakker on the shoulder and asking them to please lower their voice or perhaps take their conversation elsewhere.

Or you might try handing a cell phone blabber a card from SHHH, the Society for Handheld Hushing. Created a while back by the folks at Coudal Partners in Chicago, these little cards (downloadable free here) are pre-printed with useful phrases such as: “SHHH,” “Inside Voices, Please,” and “The world is a noisy place, you aren’t helping things.” If you’ve got a pen handy, you can even personalize the card that says: “Dear Cell Phone user: We are aware that your ongoing conversation about [fill in the blank] is very important to you, but we thought you’d like to know that it doesn’t interest us in the least. In fact your babbling disregard for others is more than a little annoying.”

Jim Coudal at Coudal Partners says while he hasn’t received any accounts of the cards causing any violent reactions, mail arrives all the time with some version of, “Damn, I wish I had these the other day when this rude person in a restaurant/store/ train ...”  He wonders if “Americans are starting to just accept self-centered mobile phone behavior as something to be lived with,” because it seems to him that “people are more inclined to shake their heads and sigh than to actually get upset these days ...”

Maybe.  Now, if you’ll please excuse me, my cell phone is ringing. It just might be that guy across the way trying to strike up a conversation.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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