Are Cell Phone Users the New Smokers?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 8 September 2004

If the newest etiquette surveys are any indication, mobile phones may be going the way of the cigarette.

Just to prove how good smokers used to have it, a recent Seattle Times article cited the 1941 treatise on manners, “New American Etiquette.” The book, with all the compassion that a high-school football coach bestows upon his third-stringers, admonishes nonsmokers not merely to accept but to accommodate their smoking peers. If unwilling, the author suggests, non-smokers would do best to “retire from social activities” altogether. With bludgeoning certitude, the book proclaims “Smokers far outnumber nonsmokers in every type of community, in every class of society and in both sexes… The young man or young woman who does not smoke is a rarity… If (a hostess) will not let her guest smoke in whatever part of the house they happen to be in, she will not have many guests…”

Now, six decades later, smokers have become the social pariahs: excluded, if not frowned upon, by contemporary behavioral codes and even municipal law. You almost have to admire them at this point for their pure strength of determination.

Yet, while smoking may have hit its sunset years, another handheld is most definitely on the up and up. According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, there are now roughly 160 million cellular phone subscribers in the United States alone. A November Gallup poll confirmed this finding, telling us that roughly two-thirds of all American adults now own cell phones, compared with just half in 2000. Clearly, non-users have earned a minority status. But are they, like the nonsmokers of 1941, simply to surrender themselves to the tyranny of ubiquitous din? To the insufferable “cell yell” of their mobile-equipped brethren?

Fortunately for these stalwart hold-outs, there’s new evidence that cell phone users can hardly even tolerate each other. In the spirit of “Wireless Etiquette Month,” a number of providers conducted surveys of cellular subscribers. Though some surveys were more comprehensive than others, each highlights the major issue at hand. Mark Siegel, vice president of public relations for AT&T Wireless, phrases it well: “It seems we may still judge our own cell phone use as being more courteous than those around us consider it to be.” The numbers back him up: 42 percent of those responding to AT&T’s survey of New York and Los Angeles said that “most Americans rarely or never use their cell phone in a courteous manner.” However, 95 percent of the respondents claimed that they themselves are courteous cell phone users “at least most of the time.” A curious discrepancy, indeed.

Even more revealing, a nationwide Sprint survey indicated that 80 percent of its respondents believe that people, “when using a wireless phone, are less courteous today than 5 years ago.” Yet again, nearly all of these respondents found their own wireless phone manners to be at least “somewhat courteous” with more than half believing their manners to be “very courteous.” What is now simply a pot and kettle squabble could easily become a growing problem for the cellular industry.

Judging from these surveys, cell phone users are a demographic ripe for the old divide-and-conquer strategy. Some lawmakers are working hard to do just that. With new laws banning the use of cell phones while driving as well as during public performances, New York City is on the front lines of the so-called “Cell Wars.” But it’s not alone. Across the United States, there is evidence of an increasing backlash against bad mobile manners. While it’s difficult to imagine cell-phone use could become as socially restricted as smoking, further limitations will prove difficult to prevent.

Consider that 62 percent of those surveyed by Sprint “felt uncomfortable overhearing someone discuss private business or personal issues on a wireless phone in public,” yet 40 percent do exactly that on a routine basis. Only 15 percent were able to claim they had absolutely never aired their dirty laundry in public. Is it so impossible to imagine New York City, or any other city for that matter, extending cell phone restrictions to restaurants, parks or even public restrooms (where 77 percent of respondents claimed to have overheard cellular conversations)?

It’s time for the cellular industry to take a bigger role in smoothing out the tremendous cultural impact of mobile technology. Providers need to give more than a single month and a token PR campaign to curb poor cell phone etiquette. The writing’s not just on the wall here, it’s in bold typeface on the pages of corporate-sponsored survey reports. Cell phone users and non-users alike are sick of obnoxious wireless behavior (guilty as they themselves may be). Cell phone users don’t have to go the way of smokers but if the industry doesn’t step in quickly, new laws will. And users, as well as the companies who hope to serve them, will be sure to suffer for it.