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Phone Frustration: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You

Miss Manners weighs in on cell etiquette for today's world

By Deborah Quilter

A lot of people are applauding actress Patti LuPone these days — and not just for her dramatic skills. Rather, it was how she recently handled the rude behavior of an audience member.

It happened during a performance of Shows for Days at New York’s Lincoln Center. The patron, sitting close to the arena-style stage and consequently bathed in light, was texting nonstop. So, during a moment when LuPone typically shakes hands with a few audience members as she exits a scene, the great diva instead tapped the woman’s shoulder with one hand, and — deftly as a pickpocket — palmed her phone with the other, then sailed offstage.

It’s not just a theater thing. Sharon Cuevas works in a Florida store and rails against customers who talk on their phones while checking out. Their lack of focus slows down the whole line. Her strategy is to ask gabbing offenders as many questions as possible in an attempt to make them focus. “Did you find everything you need? Do you need X to go along with Y? Do you have any coupons? Would you like a bag for that?”

She has asked customers to hang up or step aside, too. “It is getting to the point where people need to be forced to take a lesson in cell phone etiquette before purchasing a phone,” Cuevas says.

The New Normal?

Some people complain about the tinny sound of a text message interrupting yoga class. Others feel offended when a friend is actively or furtively checking a phone during lunch. In fact, we’ve all experienced cell phones being used inappropriately.

Should we accept this kind of behavior as the new normal and resign ourselves to the idea that we'll never again enjoy an uninterrupted performance, quiet bus ride or a dining companion’s undivided attention? If not, how can we teach people to have more consideration?

For guidance, we consulted nationally syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin (Miss Manners).

The 411 on Cell Phone Etiquette

Martin quickly settled the question: “It’s just as rude to ignore someone by texting as it would be to pull out a newspaper or a book in front of them,” she says. “If talking loudly is considered rude, the same thing applies to talking loudly on a cell phone.”

Martin attributes the rise in rudeness to what she calls the “new toy syndrome.” People have some new gadget and there are no rules about using it yet. Fortunately, Martin sets things straight in a new e-book: Miss Manners: On Endless Texting

She credits the increase in bad behavior at the theater or similar settings to the recent notion that everything must be interactive — that is, the audience’s opinion is as important as what’s being said on stage. Martin adds, though, “the idea that the audience was once well-behaved is not borne out historically.” Audience members frequently talked or milled about during orchestral performances until various conductors lashed back and insisted upon proper decorum. Now, she noted, “There’s always an etiquette lesson before every performance. Don’t use your cell phone; unwrap your candy wrappers now.”

Look at Me When Im Talking to You embed

Still, there can be scofflaws who ignore signs and polite verbal requests. If someone is shouting on his or her cell phone on the bus, Martin advises invoking a higher authority: Ask the bus driver to tell the person to pipe down.

If you’ve met someone for lunch and he or she ignores you while preoccupied with texts or email, Martin suggests you say: “This is obviously a bad time, let’s meet another time.”

Does Miss Manners think the etiquette surrounding cell phones will eventually sort itself out?

“I certainly hope so. The old basic rules can easily be applied,” she explained. “Don’t annoy other people. Don’t ignore other people.”

Meantime, for those seeking a quiet contemplation uninterrupted by intrusive noise, there does seem to be one refuge where people police themselves. When asked if Cardinal Dolan has ever had to stop Mass because of ringing phones, Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, replied that he'd never witnessed that. On the occasions when parishioners have not heeded the announcement to silence electronic devices, they quickly dive to turn off a ringing phone, usually with a sheepish look on their face.

“The only people I’ve seen abusing this are reporters,” Zwilling observed. “Their desk will call, and I’ll have to tell them to please take the call outside.”

Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Read More
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