The XX Factor

A Rant in Favor of Public Shaming for Cell Phone Misconduct

I’m more of an etiquette snob than self-proclaimed etiquette expert Anna Post . Or so it seemed at yesterday’s “Mobile Etiquette Tea,” where she and Intel’s Dr. Geneveive Bell discussed what’s socially acceptable use of cell phones, smart phones, lap tops, and e-mail.

Over finger sandwiches and a tower of cupcakes at the Russian Tea Room, a woman posed a hypothetical for Anna, the granddaughter of Emily Post: Who is ruder, the person jabbering away on her cell phone on the bus while everyone around her grows increasingly annoyed, or the annoyed seatmates who spent 10 minutes rolling their eyes and harrumphing and generally trying to make it passive aggressively clear to her that she should shut up? Anna said that, as with someone who spills red wine all over a dinner table, the proper way to deal with the “accidental offender” is to keep your annoyance to yourself so the situation can be smoothed over as quickly as possible.

What? Someone screaming about last night’s sexual exploits into her phone in a closed space is as blameless as the klutz whose elbow knocked the wine? I think not. The reason you move on from the dinner table gaffe is that the person responsible already feels horrible. The phone offender doesn’t. She’s not an “accidental offender”; she’s just oblivious.

Another woman at the event who called herself “an authority in afternoon tea” (yet wore her coat, giant fur hat, and matching fur scarf at the table, and said she wasn’t shaking hands because of the swine flu, yet had her mitts and nose all over the plate of tea bags that we were sharing-go figure) stressed that etiquette is borne out of practicality, citing the example of table settings at tea. (She is horrified, for the record, that Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t set a table properly.) Anna agreed, adding that a standard place setting also makes people comfortable, which is the goal of etiquette rules.

I dunno about that. Seems like you could have the best intentions for the comfort of your tea guest, but just not know which direction a knife should face. But that’s not the case with cell phones. There are no rules to memorize. It’s just about awareness. You either think about the comfort of the person sitting next to you on the bus trying to read, or the feelings of the lunch companion you’re all but ignoring as your furiously respond to e-mails that could easily wait another 20 minutes (what’s the worst that happens-your boss thinks you eat lunch?), or you don’t.

So I say, harrumph away. Do your best public shaming for blatant misconduct when it comes to cell phones. Maybe that’s what it takes to carve out some standards for mobile etiquette that will actually stick.