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Do you talk loudly on the cellphone?

August 12, 2005 14:39 IST

The complaints are familiar and frequent: People on cell phones talk too loud, they use them at inappropriate times, and they just don't seem to care if they are bothering anyone.

The horror stories are famous too. Cell phones at funerals. Cell phones at weddings. Cell phones in class. And of course, cell phones in restaurants.

President Bush has a well-known low cell phone tolerance. He gives a withering evil eye to those whose cell phones ring during his public appearances.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, nearly two-thirds of Americans use a cell phone, which means getting out of reception range is about the only way to avoid those irritating habits.

The guru of good behavior, Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, has a simple explanation for Americans' fascination with these flashing, buzzing, chiming gadgets.

"It's like children getting new toys," she said. "But the excitement is over. People should be over it."

Another etiquette expert, Marjabelle Young Stewart, said cell phones appeal to our inner rock star. "I think that it's making a lot of people feel cool if they drive around with this microphone," she said.

Traditionally quiet places like movie theaters, opera houses, orchestra halls and live theater venues are now compelled to remind patrons to turn off their cell phones or other devices before a performance.

Washington's Metrorail system has put up signs discouraging inconsiderate talkers. "Yes, we're all very interested in what you're having for dinner tonight," reads one sign, accompanied by a picture of a wide-mouthed Metro rider yelling into a cell phone. The second line says, "Please keep your phone conversations to yourself."

This is all too much for Miss Manners. "I look forward to going to any public event and not getting an etiquette lecture," Martin said.

Some churches in Mexico have gone beyond lectures and taken the James Bond-as-disciplinarian route to combat sacrilegious cell phone use. The churches have installed short-range cell phone signal jammers to thwart members of their flock who lack cell phone self-control during mass.

The jammers have caught on in Japan, India, and France but their use is illegal in the United States.

While some are clamoring for cell phone restraint, cell phone companies are lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to permit cell phones on commercial airline flights. But in a poll by the Association of Flight Attendants and the National Consumers League 63 per cent of respondents wanted to keep current restrictions in place.

Martin compared the evolution of the cell phone to that of the answering machine. She said when people first got them, "They were misusing them, doing their comedy routines and otherwise boring their friends." After a few years, the novelty wore off and an answering machine protocol set in, she said.

But new tricks and features for cell phones just keep on coming, so the novelty never seems to wear off. Cameras, games, ring tones, e-mail capabilities -- cell phones can have all of these things and more.

For every cultural niche, there is a cell phone feature. Perhaps most likely to raise eyebrows on the bus or in the movie theater is the "moan tone." Instead of a catchy ditty or an electronic symphony, cell phone rings can now be programmed with a recording of a porn actor making sexual noises.

Both Martin and Stewart said people need to pay attention to commonsense etiquette rules to govern their behavior with cell phones and other electronic devices.

Stewart had some advice for anyone who feels like a technophile has forgotten their manners. She recommended tapping the offender on the shoulder and asking them to please lower their voice or take their gadget outside.

"You can't always be polite," she said.
Juan-Carlos Rodriguez in Washington
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