Wireless World: The silence of the phones?

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International  |  July 9, 2004 at 8:49 AM
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A weekly series by UPI examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.


CHICAGO, July 9 (UPI) -- The first time famed composer Arnold Schoenberg heard Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 2" back in the late 19th century, he said he felt "overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed."

Last month, when Californian Lisa Mirza Grotts and her husband heard that same, masterful work at the San Francisco Symphony, they were overcome, too -- but for a completely different reason.

"Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, at the start of the performance, said that he was going to tape it," Grotts told United Press International.

An exceptionally crass person seated nearby did not seem to take the message to heart and let his cellular phone ring repeatedly during the taping.

"It made me cringe," said Grotts, a consultant and former aide to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

As mobile phones become ever more pervasive in the lives of Americans, they are sparking a cultural and social debate: Just what is appropriate conduct, and when should people silence their phones? What are the proper manners one must adopt when on a mobile phone?

Due to generational differences -- mobile phones are most popular with young people -- no one apparently knows for sure. So giving a noisome individual a disapproving look for behavior that one deems unacceptable may not work, just yet.

"There are no etiquette rules for mobile phone use," said Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at the American University in Washington, D.C.

"We're in a free-for-all period, where people are feeling their way around, and trying to decide how to use the technology," she told UPI.

In some ways, none of this is new. It is analogous to what happened during the first days of the telephone, after it was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

At first, telephones had to remain on, because they did not have ringers. To get the attention of the party being called, people had to shout, often loudly, until someone would pick up the line.

Bell's archrival, Thomas Alva Edison, began pushing the idea of saying, "Hello!" when calling, but at first this was considered déclassé, Baron said.

"'Hello!' was what you said to get the attention of the hounds," she said.

Eventually, the Edison usage became accepted. Today, no one thinks twice about saying "Hello!" when they answer a call.

Mobile phone companies are trying to create a culture for customers that emphasizes respect for others, but it is taking a lot of time -- and money -- to do so.

This week, Sprint Wireless released "The 2004 Sprint Wireless Courtesy Report," a national survey of 723 consumers. It revealed that nearly two-thirds of those polled felt "uncomfortable" hearing other people's conversations in public, and 77 percent said they had even heard wireless calls while in a public restroom.

"Pretty much everywhere you look, people think they use proper phone etiquette, but others do not," Laura Tigges, a spokeswoman for Sprint, told UPI.

Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, Fla., said one simple thing consumers should do is learn about the features of their mobile phones, and learn how to use the options that enable them to silence the ringer and put the phone on vibrate mode, so it vibrates noiselessly when a call comes through.

For very important calls that simply cannot wait, consumers can assign a special ring tone for the caller, so they know they have to answer.

"You can carry the phone everywhere, just be more mindful of others," Whitmore told UPI.

One major mobile phone company has partnered with movie theaters and financed public service announcements that run before the trailers of upcoming films, instructing moviegoers to turn off their phones.

The company's agency of record, BBDO in New York City, has produced the PSAs. One recent announcement was styled like an old Western film, and featured Native Americans, hunting buffalo. The buffalo scattered when the sound of a mobile phone was heard. The characters on screen look at the camera, and say it was someone in the audience.

A big laugh, but effective, too.

"We started this campaign nearly two years ago and we've done surveys to see if it was working," said Jennifer Bowcock, a director of media relations at Cingular Wireless in Atlanta.

"Nearly half the people surveyed said that they took an action after seeing the spot," she told UPI. "They put their phone on vibrate or silenced it."

Survey respondents said the most annoying place to hear a wireless phone ring was at church, with movie theaters a close second.

"Seventy-nine percent said they had a better experience at the movies because of this movie trailer campaign," Bowcock said.

Wireless phone users can stay in touch with others if they need to be, even at the symphony, the movies or at church, by simply forwarding calls to voicemail, or using automatic text messaging to say they are unavailable but will return the call soon.

"Before you take a call, put yourself in the other person's shoes, and determine whether or not you'd want the guy next to you do the same," said Sherri Pfefer, a spokeswoman for TracFone Wireless, a prepaid wireless provider.

Many people still have not gotten the message -- so to speak -- so sometimes, frustrated commuters resort to all sorts of humorous retorts.

"When on the train, or somewhere else where some bozo goes on discussing their personal life on the cell phone, take part in the conversation," New Yorker Dana Mellecker told UPI. "Look at them. Laugh at the jokes, express surprise, give a reassuring look if they are talking about bad news. Guaranteed to stop them in their tracks."

This may, or may not, work, depending upon the person receiving the message.

Baron, author of six books, including "Alphabet to E-Mail: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading," thinks many people have become "inured" to hearing other people's private conversations in public, and to having their own talks overheard.

"We're redefining ourselves," she said. "Everyone wants to express what they think and feel."

Robert Butterworth a psychologist in Los Angeles, said he thinks the reason some people do not care if others overhear their mobile phone conversations, or their even louder ring tones playing a pop song, is simply because in today's wireless world they "have a baffling sense of entitlement."

"They don't get sheepish when shushed," he told UPI. "You're the rude one."


Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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