Earlier today I was at the farmers market, picking out some squash and zucchini so I could make zucchini noodles with tofu (it’s really good). Standing right in front of the produce was a tall guy on his cell phone. He seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was blocking other people’s access to the stand – he was too busy yammering away to give a damn. I manuevered around him, picked my items, and paid. Did the dude hang up? No – he actually took another call and stood there complaining about being bothered while he was trying to shop. Based on what he was muttering, I think the second call was actually work-related. The nerve. One of the salespeople at the produce stand was waiting for him to finish, because she stood there looking at him, not sure if she should say anything. It was annoying to watch.
Then this afternoon I read an article on Consumerist about how businesses are dealing with customers who are on their cell phones, and they asked readers to comment on what techniques would work. Many people suggested violence, others suggested signage, while others offered some phrases such as “I’m going to help the person behind you so you can finish your call, please step to the side and let me know when you’re ready.” All I can think is: how did we get here? And WWAGBD, which is short for What Would Alexander Graham Bell Do?
I ask this because there are times when I am out and I am very aware of the high number of people more engaged with their phone than with their surroundings. I often think how weird we would look to an alien race who communicates telepathically and they don’t understand these little boxes we carry around and poke at occasionally. And sometimes I find myself getting irrationally angry at people who cannot seem to put down the damn phone and TALK TO ME BECAUSE I AM RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. You know who you are.
I try to avoid using my phone for calls when I’m out shopping. If I do, I usually look for an out-of-the-way spot to hide in while I have my conversation. And I don’t make or take calls while I’m at a restaurant eating with someone else – it has to be an urgent matter for me to answer the phone. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one who has a sense of cell phone etiquette – and mind you, I slip up at times, especially if I am stressed out or I’m attempting to multitask (which I really am horrible at doing).
But back to my question: when confronted with poor phone etiquette, what would Alexander Graham Bell – or Alec, as he was known in his later years – do? For years the rumor has been that he hated the telephone. But according to his wife Mabel, that wasn’t the case at all – he just didn’t want one in his study because that’s where he did all his work. Check out this excerpt from a letter she wrote to the head of AT&T, long before the days of the iPhone:
Dear Mr. Carty:
I am beginning to get distressed over the many statements the papers have been publishing of Mr. Bell’s dislike of the telephone. Of course, he never had one in his study. That was where he went when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts and his work. The telephone, of course, means intrusion by the outside world. And the little difficulties and delays often attending the establishment of conversation in even well managed telephone circuits did irritate him, so that as a rule he preferred having others send and receive messages. But all really important business over the telephone he transacted himself.
There are few private houses more completely equipped with telephones than ours at 1331 Connecticut Avenue, and there was nothing that Mr. Bell was more particular about than our telephone service here. [Beinn Bhreagh, N.S.]. For nearly all of the thirty-five odd years we have been here he saw personally to its proper working. We never could have come here in the first place or continued here, but for the telephone which kept us in close touch with doctors and neighbors and the regular telegraph office. . . .Mr. Bell did like to say in fun, “Why did I ever invent the Telephone,” but no one had a higher appreciation of its indispensableness or used it more freely when need was—either personally or by deputy—and he was really tremendously proud of it and all it was accomplishing.
Two things pop out here:
- Alec didn’t have a phone in his study because that’s where he did his work.
- He appreciated its usefulness and “indispensableness” when he had need for the phone.
With those things in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Bell would encourage people to use their phones while in line at Starbucks only when it is absolutely necessary. He would define necessity as being a matter of life or death, not figuring out your officemate’s drink order. He would remind Mr. Chats-a-Lot at the farmer’s market that the telephone can be too much of a distraction. And he would applaud businesses that establish rules for dealing with customers on cell phones.
Then he would get on his iPhone 4s and text his wife “OMG u wont believe what just happened at the farmers mkt.”