An Experiment in Cell Phone Etiquette by Molly Einhorn

The Rules:
1) There will be no text messaging unless sitting down and not in conversation.
2) In conversation, it is necessary to let conversation partner(s) know when I am expecting a call.
3) If in the middle of a conversation there is an unexpected call, I must first excuse myself from the conversation. If the phone call is not urgent, I must tell the caller I will have to call back, because I am in the middle of a conversation.
“Oh, that will be really good for you Molly,” said my friend when I told her about my experiment in cell phone etiquette. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that you always answer your cell phone right away without excusing yourself”. I was somehow surprised to learn that I was guilty of cell phone misdemeanors.

I’ve been pretty righteous about cell phones- so many micro-interactions missed while arranging and planning ahead in the social space! I find that cell phones intrude incessantly into social situations, their (mostly) unarticulated presence in almost every social situation… And apparently, I am just as guilty of being rude and inconvenient as anyone I might be implicating in my complaints.
So I’ve been following these rules for two hours when I sit down in a café with the same friend who suggested that this would be a good exercise for me. My phone rings in the middle of our conversation. It’s my brother. My friend grimaces at me, I listen to the phone ring in my pocket. I finally pull it out, “Hey Har, can I call you back in about a half hour?” It felt so strange, to be privileging my lunch and conversation over a phone call. But it wasn’t an emergency, so Harry could wait.

I called him back after the meal, politely taking the phone outside to the smoking benches instead of interrupting my friend’s study space. He didn’t pick up. So annoying. I sent him a text message as I walked inside-first mistake- texting and walking, I lose my footing on a step that dropped off sharper than expected. And there it is. The tiny consequence of trying to pretend text messaging is a natural as breathing.

When my brother called me back, I made the small effort again, of differentiating the space between my real-life social situation in the café and ‘phone call space’. Outside again, we had a chat. I told him he was an active participant in my etiquette experiment.  He said, “Can you hold on a second while I send a text message?” I realized that I couldn’t really say no- it’s such a small thing to ask. So while I waited for what felt like a good three minutes, I had plenty of time to consider the absurdity of a cell phone that was designed to promote multi-tasking. I didn’t know there were cell phones that could send text messages and have conversations simultaneously. (I’ve heard before that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, only, alternating between two tasks really fast.)

My feeling is that these moments are so small, the rudeness so easily to forgotten, our time so micromanaged, that we don’t see the corrosive affects these habits have on our social interactions. I do not doubt the power of instantly connecting to anyone, or the amazing ability to communicate information without ever picking up the phone. Yet, there is something pretty weird about the lack of designated space for cell phones, or the acknowledgement of all of the missed interactions that inevitably add up when so much time is spent plugged into a palm sized device.

When I am sitting with people who are constantly text messaging, it is as if they are in two places- I’d like to think people will offer me the courtesy of paying attention to the world they are physically, rather than virtually, occupying.

I began following these rules as a 24-hour experiment. After my morning of tripping over text messages, I conveniently forgot my cell phone somewhere. That night, I checked it (politely) to find seven missed calls, and my life was no different than before. Only, I had control over when and where I would be calling those people back.

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This entry was posted in Creative Writing, Disconnect Issue # 2 May 2010, Literary Non-fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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