Manners For The Digital Age

Cellphones in Locker Rooms (Transcript)

Should gyms enforce a no-phone zone in areas where people are, you know, naked? Those phones have cameras after all.

Farhad Manjoo:  “Uh … I’m naked over here. Do you mind?!”

Emily Yoffe:  And I’m not! I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Emily:  Today’s question is from a listener who’s concerned about locker room etiquette. He writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, I joined a gym about two years ago. Despite signage both in and outside the locker room that clearly reads ‘Cellphone-Free Zone’ I’m beginning to see men talking on their phones with increased frequency while others are changing around them. And, well, it’s not the greatest feeling in the world knowing that someone could take a picture of you in your birthday suit.

“This now happens with such frequency, that I wonder if I’m behind the times and should adjust to the new level of discomfort in locker rooms. How would you handle this situation?” Signed, Sweating the Small Stuff.

Oh, dear. That’s not really how you want to sign yourself if you’re talking about your being naked. Okay, anyway. Farhad, you’re showering at the gym and some guy whips his cellphone out. Are you uncomfortable with that?

Farhad:  No, I’m not uncomfortable if he’s talking on the phone, and it seems like that’s what these guys are doing. I think that there’s a specific pose you go into when you’re taking a photo. If someone is just talking on the phone, it doesn’t really bother me.

Emily: What I liked about this letter is that I, like you, thought, “Okay, this is just to cut down on the blah, blah, blah in the gym.” But I thought the letter writer did raise another issue of this technology which I hadn’t really thought about, which is it’s not just about having to listen to yammering. The cellphone is a device that seriously changes the nature of privacy and recording.

Let’s say there’s a famous person. Brad Pitt is at your gym. Whoa! Just think about snapping a picture of him coming out of the shower. I thought the letter writer raised a good issue. It’s not just intrusive conversation. There is a privacy component to having cellphones around. But you seem to think it’s trivial.

Farhad:  I agree. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought about. I don’t know. Maybe I expect the best of people, but I wouldn’t have thought that someone is going to take a photo of me while I’m in the locker room. I mean, they would take a photo of me, but I don’t know about others.

It seems a little paranoid to worry about that to me. It’s pretty obvious when people are having annoying phone calls. I don’t know what the management is thinking here, but I imagine that’s the thing they’re trying to deter. It could be that they’re worried about photos, but then I think they would say that more clearly on the signage. “Cellphone-Free Zone” doesn’t suggest that. It doesn’t suggest that’s what they’re worried about, and I imagine most of the patrons aren’t worried about that either.

Emily:  Well, does this kind of chatter in a locker room or gym bother you? My gym has these signs “No Cellphones in the Workout Zones.” Is that just silly?

Farhad:  No. I do think that’s annoying and I hate it when I hear someone talking in the bathroom, and I especially feel bad for the person on the other end of the phone.

Emily:  Even though you do it yourself, as you’ve acknowledged.

Farhad:  No, I think I made clear that I do it in my own private bathroom – not in a public restroom. I do think it’s annoying, but this guy’s specific fear that there’s going to be a photo taken, I think that’s paranoid.

Emily:  Maybe it was Brad Pitt? Sorry to hear it’s the small stuff. I think it’s fair enough cell-free conversation and photograph zones are created in life and I think this guy should not deal with the talkers, but go to management and say, “Look, you got the signs up but there is a lot of chatter in the locker room. Maybe you need to put up a new sign ‘For everyone’s comfort and privacy, take your cellphone conversations to the lobby.’ Maybe you need to have someone walk through occasionally and say, ‘Sir, sorry. This is cellphone-free zone.’”

If you get a little bit of enforcement, that tends to reduce it. I think the person has a small, but legitimate, gripe. Management is the place to go. You’re standing there naked.

Farhad:  I agree with you. I think he should go to management. Clearly they have a rule, and I do think the talking is annoying to people. I think a good solution would be for the gym to create a “Cellphone Allowed Zone” where people can go and take their conversation, preferably where there aren’t naked people around.

What’s happening is one person talks on the phone and other people see that it’s okay, so everyone starts doing it and it becomes a lawless zone.

Emily:  Right. Can I also say, while we’re talking about it, ladies please, while you’re doing your makeup, just put on a bathrobe or towel or something. People sit in front of the mirror, blow-dry their hair, do makeup for 20 minutes – they’re completely naked. Oh God. You guys may want to look. I don’t want to see it. But, that’s a different, not digital age question.

Farhad:  Yes, a non-digital and eternal concern. Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is

Emily:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to

Farhad:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.