Instead, she suggests, each school should develop its own policy, which may require that cell phones be turned off in class but should allow their use before and
Should students be able to use cell phones during class periods? This is a question a lot of students and parents have asked themselves. The invention of cell
Although Goffman wrote in the era before cell phones, he might have judged their use as a “subordinate activity,” a way to pass the time such as reading or doodling that could and should be set aside when the dominant activity resumes. Within social space, we are allowed to perform a range of these secondary activities, but they must not impose upon the social group as a whole or require so much attention that they remove us from the social situation altogether. The opposite appears to be true today. The group is expected never to impinge upon — indeed, it is expected to tacitly endorse by enduring — the individual’s right to withdraw from social space by whatever means he or she chooses: cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPods, DVDs screened on laptop computers. These devices are all used as a means to refuse to be “in” the social space; they are technological cold shoulders that are worse than older forms of subordinate activity in that they impose visually and auditorily on others. Cell phones are not the only culprits here. A member of my family, traveling recently on the Amtrak train from New York, was shocked to realize that the man sitting in front of her was watching a pornographic movie on his laptop computer — a movie whose raunchy scenes were reflected in the train window and thus clearly visible to her. We have allowed what should be subordinate activities in social space to become dominant.
We cannot simply banish to Tartarus — the section of Hades reserved for punishment of the worst offenders — all those who violate the rules of social space. And the noise pollution generated by rude cell phone users is hardly the worst violation of social order; it is not the same as defacing a statue, for example. Other countries offer some reason for optimism: In societies that maintain more formality, such as Japan, loud public conversation is considered rude, and Japanese people will often cover their mouths and hide their phones from view when speaking into them.
In the U.S., mild regional differences in the use of cell phones are evident. Reporting on a survey by Cingular wireless, CNN noted that cell phone users in the South “are more likely to silence their phones in church,” while Westerners “are most likely to turn a phone off in libraries, theaters, restaurants, and schools.” But nationwide, cell phones still frequently interrupt movie screenings, theater performances, and concerts. Audience members are not the sole offenders, either. My sister, a professional musician, told me that during one performance, in the midst of a slow and quiet passage of Verdi’s Requiem, the cell phone of one of the string players in the orchestra began ringing, much to the horror of his fellow musicians.
The first time you saw a person walking down the street having a conversation using a hands-free cell phone device you intuitively grasped this state. Wildly gesticulating, laughing, mumbling — to the person on the other end of the telephone, their street-walking conversation partner is engaged in normal conversation. To the outside observer, however, he looks like a deranged or slightly addled escapee from a psychiatric ward. Engaged with the ether, hooked up to an earpiece and dangling microphone, his animated voice and gestures are an anomaly in the social space. They violate our everyday sense of normal behavior.
In terms of the rules of social space, cell phone use is a form of communications panhandling — forcing our conversations on others without first gaining their tacit approval. “The force that keeps people in their communication place in our middle-class society,” Goffman observed, “seems to be the fear of being thought forward and pushy, or odd, the fear of forcing a relationship where none is desired.” But middle class society itself has decided to upend such conventions in the service of greater accessibility and convenience. This is a dramatic shift that took place in a very short span of time, and it is worth at least considering the long-term implications of this subversion of norms. The behavioral rules Goffman so effectively mapped exist to protect everyone, even if we don’t, individually, always need them. They are the social equivalent of fire extinguishers placed throughout public buildings. You hope not to have to use them too often, but they can ensure that a mere spark does not become an embarrassing conflagration. In a world that eschews such norms, we find ourselves plagued by the behavior that Goffman used to witness only among the denizens of the asylum: disembodied talk that renders all of us unwilling listeners.
ur daily interactions with cell phone users often prompt heated exchanges and promises of furious retribution. When New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey asked readers to send in their cell phone horror stories, he was deluged with responses: “There is not enough time in the day to relay the daily torment I must endure from these cell-yellers,” one woman said. “There’s always some self-important jerk who must holler his business all the way into Manhattan,” another commuter wearily noted. Rarely does one find a positive story about cell phone users who behaved politely, observing the common social space.
The etiquette challenges posed by cell phones are universal, although different countries have responded in slightly different ways. Writing about the impact of cell phone technology in The Guardian in 2002, James Meek noted, with moderate horror, that cell phones now encourage British people to do what “British people aren’t supposed to do: invite strangers, spontaneously, into our personal worlds. We let everyone know what our accent is, what we do for a living, what kind of stuff we do in our non-working hours.” In France, cell phone companies were pressured by the public to censor the last four digits of phone numbers appearing on monthly statements, because so many French men and women were using them to confirm that their significant other was having an affair.
Such encounters can sometimes escalate into rude intransigence or even violence. In the past few years alone, men and women have been stabbed, escorted off of airplanes by federal marshals, pepper-sprayed in movie theaters, ejected from concert halls, and deliberately rammed with cars as a result of their bad behavior on their cell phones. The Zagat restaurant guide reports that cell phone rudeness is now the number one complaint of diners, and USA Today notes that “fifty-nine percent of people would rather visit the dentist than sit next to someone using a cell phone.”
Why do these cell phone conversations bother us more than listening to two strangers chatter in person about their evening plans or listening to a parent scold a recalcitrant child? Those conversations are quantitatively greater, since we hear both sides of the discussion — so why are they nevertheless experienced as qualitatively different? Perhaps it is because cell phone users harbor illusions about being alone or assume a degree of privacy that the circumstances don’t actually allow. Because cell phone talkers are not interacting with the world around them, they come to believe that the world around them isn’t really there and surely shouldn’t intrude. And when the cell phone user commandeers the space by talking, he or she sends a very clear message to others that they are powerless to insist on their own use of the space. It is a passive-aggressive but extremely effective tactic.