The new second-hand smoke: cell phone-using laptop users in public spaces

cell phone-using laptop userI’m one of the many people in Northfield who A) spends most of my day on a computer and B) spends a decent chunk of that time in public spaces with wi-fi access (coffeehouses and pubs).

I’m increasingly irritated by my fellow laptop jockeys who use their cell phones or their VOIP service within earshot of others, especially me. I’m tempted to order one of those illegal cell phone jammer devices.

phone-gestureI understand the temptation. Online collaboration increasingly requires one to be in voice contact while navigating web pages.  But puhleeeeease, it’s really rude. Either do this elsewhere, or use IM instead of voice.

Lately, I’ve taken to making eye contact with the offender, and then giving them the phone gesture followed by a pointing motion to the outdoors or hallway. Most get the hint.

Anyone else have interventions to suggest?

And for a related annoyance, see this funny September/October 2008 Technology Review article by Jonathan Franzen titled “I Just Called to Say I Love You” – Cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space

Which is why, of all the worsening varieties of bad cell-phone behavior, the one that most deeply irritates me is the one that seems, because it is ostensibly victimless, to irritate nobody else. I’m talking about the habit, uncommon 10 years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words “LOVE YOU!” Or, even more oppressive and grating: “I LOVE YOU!” It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language. It makes me want to scream.


  1. Jerry Bilek said:

    as long as we’re complaining, here’s a good story. A person(I refuse to call her a customer) comes in the store, parks her stroller, plunks her kids down in the kids section, goes outside, makes a call(10-15 minutes), returns, grabs the kids and says “let’s go.” one child has a book she wants to buy, $5.99. Mother says “put it back, we’re not buying any books, we’re going to the library.” Mother tosses the book in the kids section and splits. Apparently I was the baby sitter.

    Got that off my chest, I feel better now.

    October 13, 2008
  2. For goodness sake, Jerry! I am totally with you on this one, and with Griff on his plight.

    But, I do have a funny story relating to a cell phone user in a fairly fine family style restaurant just outside of Tulsa. I was having dinner with friends, and the man at the booth next to us gets a call, and for the next 3 to 4 minutes all we heard was “Ye ep, ye ep, ye ep” and each time we heard ‘ye ep’, it got louder and louder.

    Two of my friends started laughing and they couldn’t stop. I didn’t think it was all that funny, but I started laughing because those two were laughing so hard by then. One friend only got upset because we were all laughing. I excused myself and went to the ladies room to keep from getting into any more trouble.

    When the cell phone man got off the cell phone, he explained to his mates that his daughter was missing, took all his money and ran away from home with some dude. Not all that funny. Morals of the story, some calls you just have to take while sitting down, surrounded by friends, and don’t laugh at one sided conversations.

    October 13, 2008
  3. john george said:

    Griff- When it comes to cell phones, there is just no call for some of the public behavior being exhibited.

    October 13, 2008
  4. Jessica Paxton said:


    I think we all must have funny cell phone stories. I was once in a movie theater in Las Vegas and the person sitting behind me answered their cell phone (which rang in the middle of the movie) and then proceeded to have a conversation, in their regular speaking voice, like they were just hanging out at in their living room. Completely oblivious to the fact that they were in a public theater. The person must have been asked by the caller what they were up to, because the response was, “Oh, nothing. I’m just at the movies.” Then it was just non-stop chit-chat for what seemed like forever. I’m surprised there wasn’t a mutiny (this was when cell phones were very new and not so commonly used. I think most of the audience members, myself included, were just so stunned we didn’t know how to respond!).

    October 13, 2008
  5. A.Ripka said:

    totally hear you on that one, jerry. i think we should start charging for baby-sitting entertainment services. “We watch your kids while you chat. Only $.50/minute!”

    October 13, 2008
  6. It’s not like laptops and cell phones are turning polite people into rude ones. It’s just a new way for people who are already rude to express themselves.

    I believe there is a way to carry on a digital conversation politely in a public place, especially in a cafe already noisy with chatter.

    I like to work outside of my studio apartment from time to time, which means calling people on my cell phone in public places. I was carrying on such a conversation in a cafe across the street when a group of women walked over to my table and began speaking with me as if I were not conducting an interview with someone over the phone. They said they needed my table and began pushing it toward another table so they could have some kind of discussion group (which was exceedingly loud). In the process of shoving my table out from under me, they nearly toppled my coffee onto my laptop and my laptop onto the floor. Not to mention I had to have the person on the phone repeat what he had just said. How rude!

    October 14, 2008
  7. Bonnie, I am so sorry that happened to you. You could have been injured.
    Next time, grab a chair, squeeze in amongst them at the stolen table,
    and let them know you are our star reporter and you are very interested in everything they say and do. I bet you get more apologies than you have ever heard.

    October 14, 2008
  8. Matt Sewich said:

    While I agree that this behavior can be annoying, I don’t know if I would call it the “new second-hand smoke” without some concrete analysis of potential health consequences:

    Here is what OSHA says on noise:

    I guess I view coffehouses and pubs as places for people to go and socialize. If they supply the ability for people to work that’s great, but if the environment interferes with your ability to work then leave. If a coffeehouse or pub wants to cater to the person showing up to login and do work in a quiet place, then by all means they should create that environment and make the rules.

    I don’t know what the Wigley-line-in-the-sand is here, but if I’m out having a cup of coffee at a coffeehouse or a beer at a pub and I get a phone call and in turn I get a thumb-pinky phone gesture and a point on where to go, I’ll probably meet it with my own array of gestures if I don’t feel like I’m being rude.

    All that being said if a committee is to be formed to figure out what annoying behavior to ban I’ll gladly volunteer my time and bring a long list of things I find annoying.

    October 14, 2008
  9. Patrick Enders said:

    If the call is brief, and the volume of speaking is not out of line with what is already going on in the coffee shop, I have no problem with a bit of cell phone conversation.

    Speaking with full voice in a relatively quiet place – say, Hogan Bros. at mid-afternoon – yes, that’s quite rude.

    October 14, 2008

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