Secondhand Sound

As a boy I was taught that cupping my hand over someone's ear to whisper a secret in the company of a group is rude. People watching me whisper may feel left out, or worse, assume that they are my topic.

My theory is that if it's rude to whisper secrets in public, it is equally rude to blab them to everyone present. Cell phones have inverted the "whispering offense," forcing everyone within earshot to hear private information.

I remember sitting in a restaurant and listening to a woman in the next booth shout a description of a rather intimate medical procedure into her cell phone -prepping her girlfriend for the same procedure. Ummm, what a yummy meal that was!

Most people don't realize that talking louder into a cell phone doesn't increase the volume for the listener. Barring a bad connection, clear annunciation and the volume of the listener's phone are what determine a cell user's understandability, not the volume of the talker.

A 2006 study by Harris Interactive found that in the year 2000 only 31% of people polled found cell phone use in a restaurant acceptable. In 2006, that number dropped to 21%.

Obsessive cell phone use isn't limited to restaurants. People answer their "too cute" ringer-melodies at concerts, theaters, churches, bathrooms, weddings and funerals. "Cell-phone-free zones," polite requests from a maître d' -even icy stares from people whose conversations are drowned out by an adjacent cell phone yeller, don't seem to help.

I'm not against carrying a cell phone in these places; I know that concerned parents are always going to answer their babysitter's call in a theater. But courtesy, while answering such a call is easy. I've seen considerate people answer and say, "Hold on," and then exit the theater to finish the call. I wish this consideration weren't the exception.

When someone is delaying progress of my grocery store check-out line as they finish a phone conversation, I wish I could use a cell phone jammer to help us all move along. But such jammers are illegal in the US (except for law enforcement), because the FCC classifies jammers as "theft" of airwaves. But that hasn't kept jammers from my fantasy of creating a comfy bubble of public peace and tranquility around me.

Other countries sell cell phone jammers. They can easily fit in a pocket or briefcase. Jammers prevent wireless phones from contacting a cellular radio tower, causing affected phones to behave as though signal is unavailable. Users don't complain because they don't know what is going on, so they simply move to a new location to make their call.

Some South American banks jam cell signals to prevent from robbers coordinating with accomplices after watching customers make large withdrawals.

In the U.S., passive blocking of cell signals, such as installing metal shielding in walls, is legal because it doesn't interfere with users external to the shielded area. Options for achieving such legal cell-phone-serenity in public places are increasing as manufacturers scramble to fill the need. Restaurateurs and owners of other "structures" in which the comfort of all guests is a concern, will no-doubt consider these options.

A "shielded" restaurant may make for an easier decision when a host or hostess asks, "Indoors or out?"

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