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Hey there, phone talker.

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Yes, I mean you, yakking away on your phone in the middle of this coffee shop, or subway, or restaurant, or gym, or open-concept co-working space. Did someone forward you this article, or tag you on social media, or print this out and hand it to you? If so, it may because that person has been subjected to your half of a phone conversation. And that’s not okay. As Christine Rosen, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted in her 2004 article, “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves,” “We are now all privy to calls being put through, to the details of loved ones contacted, appointments made, arguments aired, and gossip exchanged.”

A Substantive Intrusion

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the value of mobile phones when it comes to handling work emergencies, or family emergencies, or quick logistical check-ins. For women, in particular, mobile phones can be hugely liberating: In “Change in the Social Life of Urban Public Spaces,” Keith N. Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, and Garrett Albanesius note that: “The mobile phone may provide women with a means to balance paid work, unpaid work and ‘net work’, as well as reduce the vulnerability that women experience as a result of being alone in public.”

So I’m not complaining about how you chat on your phone as you walk down the street, or impose on your fellow restaurant-goers by taking a one-minute call from the babysitter. But it’s another thing entirely to conduct an extended conversation subjecting everyone nearby to your thoughts on that latest report draft, or your search for a new corporate investor, or the relative merits of skinny vs. standard margaritas. All very worthy topics, to be sure, but ones that are best explored from the privacy of your own home, office, or vehicle.

As Rosen noted fifteen years ago,

Certain public interactions carry with them certain unspoken rules of behavior. When approaching a grocery store checkout line, you queue behind the last person in line and wait your turn…What you never used to expect, but must now endure, is the auditory abrasion of a stranger arguing about how much he does, indeed, owe to his landlord…We are no longer overhearing, which implies accidentally stumbling upon a situation where two people are talking in presumed privacy. Now we are all simply hearing.

Maybe you’ve imagined that talking on your phone is just fine because you’re surrounded by people who are also engaged in conversation. But as psychology scholar Lauren L. Emberson et al. note in “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations,” “overhearing a cell-phone conversation is judged to be more irritating and intrusive than overhearing a dialogue in which both parties are heard…Because overhearing a cellphone conversation entails access to only half of a dialogue, the speech content is less predictable than that of a full conversation.” As a result, the authors found, overhearing a cell phone conversation creates a significant distraction for the inadvertent listener—which means that your public conversation is in fact a substantive intrusion on the attention of those around you.

Engaging in a public phone conversation is therefore a violation of what Edna Ullmann-Margalit terms considerateness, in her article of the same name: “When I act out of consideration toward you, I have your wellbeing in mind. My considerate act is typically intended to decrease your discomfort, alleviate your inconvenience, or minimize an injury to your welfare.” Extended public phone calls violate this norm of considerateness, in which, as Ullmann-Margalit puts it,

I recognize that you and I temporarily share the same space (physical or mental) and that this very fact might have nuisance implications for you. In acting considerately toward you I mean to convey to you this complex of recognitions and at the same time to minimize the inconvenience I may engender in you. Implicit in this is my recognizing you as a fellow human being and my respect for you as such.

Reshaping Public Space

If an overheard phone conversation is inconsiderate and distracting for the people around you, they’re not the only folks with a stake in your phone manners. Every time you use your phone in public, you’re redrawing the line between public and private space in ways that have significant social consequences. After all, as Hampton et al. write, “public spaces are a component of the public sphere,” and,

the contact that takes place in public spaces has other, well-established benefits. Walking on public streets in the company of others, as opposed to walking alone, is associated with revitalisation and reduced levels of anxiety and depression. Time spent in public spaces has been found to increase attachment and sense of community, lead to higher levels of perceived health, and reduce feelings of loneliness.

Extended public phone calls disrupt this public space. Hampton et al. sum up the problem tidily:

Some scholars have argued that new mobile technologies have resulted in public spaces that are no longer communal spaces; fewer traditional in-person interactions in public; and people in public spaces engaged through technology with someone miles away rather than with someone in the same space.

As a result, they argue (citing media theorist Sherry Turkle), “technologies such as the mobile phone may further undermine public life by increasing the opportunity for people to spend time in private while in public spaces.” So while, as sociologist Krishan Kumar and Ekaterina Makarova write in “The Portable Home,” “[I]t would be wrong to make the mobile phone the chief culprit or even the principal expression of the domestication of public space,” it is still “the most obvious, the most ubiquitous, the most familiar example of the phenomenon.”

Perhaps it’s a bit much to hold your loud phone call responsible for the privatization of public space, the erosion of the public sphere, and the resulting damage to community health. (Then again, maybe it’s not.) But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to acknowledge that your phone call, like every other extended public phone call, contributes to a collective shift in our norms around public interaction and etiquette.

As Rosen noted fifteen years ago, “We are in the midst of a period of adjustment.” In 2004, Rosen could write that “[w]e still have the memory of the old social rules, which remind us to be courteous towards others, especially in confined environments.” By 2012, in an article about social disengagement on the Greyhound bus, sociologist Esther C. Kim wrote that “[t]here exists a range of public spaces where the tolerability of chatting on cell phones varies.” If it took only eight years for public phone usage to degrade from generally frowned upon to intermittently acceptable, then we may be close to the point of giving up on any limits to cell phone use in public.

But I’m not ready to give up yet. After all, there’s more at stake here than simple rudeness, or intruding on the concentration of those around you: We’re also redrawing the line between public and private, between our collective interest in having spaces where we can interact with others, and our private interest in being able to take any call, anywhere and anytime.

That thirst for convenience has already cost us our online privacy, as we fork over our data to Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter in return for better customer service or a few good discounts. But we don’t have to let convenience steal our public civility, or erode the few remaining spaces where we actually look up from our screens and into one another’s eyes.

All it takes to save that public space is one simple act: Hang up your damn phone.


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The New Atlantis, No. 6 (Summer 2004), pp. 26-45
Center for the Study of Technology and Society
Urban Studies, Vol. 52, No. 8 (JUNE 2015), pp. 1489-1504
Sage Publications, Ltd.
Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 10 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 1383-1388
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science
Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly / עיון: רבעון פילוסופי, כרך‎ 60 (July 2011), pp. 205-244
S. H. Bergman Center for Philosophical Studies
Sociological Theory, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Dec., 2008), pp. 324-343
American Sociological Association
Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 35, No. 3 (August 2012), pp. 267-283
Wiley on behalf of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction