Get off the phone

Russell Wangersky
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It’s probably one of the most obvious predictions of all time: when, sometime in the not too distant future, people can start using their cellphones on airplanes, there’s going to be a spate of air-rage violence. Heck, just this week, a dispute over text messaging in a movie theatre ended in a shooting and death.

Airplanes involve a lot closer confines, and time spans often longer than the average movie, so you can only imagine what it might be like to have someone next to you yelling over the airplane into a Bluetooth or an iPhone for literally hours on end.

It is a new way to light the already short fuse of the travelling public.

Because the ignorance of electronic devices is bad enough when you’re not also pinned into a seat with a seatbelt sign lit.

What people seem to forget when using their electronics — whether it’s bellowing into Skype on your personal computer at a coffee shop or stopping in mid-sentence at a restaurant to answer the latest chirping tweet — is that, while they are including themselves in some sort of global net of shared existence, they are just as much carefully excluding everyone around them.

Believe it or not, electronics addicts, the message you send is “I, and the person I’m communicating with, matter. You do not.”

Sure, that’s probably not what you mean when you answer your cellphone at a party; after all, you’re falling into exactly the pit that makes cellphones and driving so dangerous. Once locked into a two-way conversation with someone else, you lock out your surroundings — what exists is you and the person you’re talking to or texting with. Stop signs? Other traffic? The friend you were raising a beer with a moment before? He or she and all of the room fades into the background. The foreground, where things are really happening, is the phone.

Courtesy around the use of electronics has been slipping for years. Right now, with The Telegram offices still closed at the Village mall, I’ve been going to editorial meetings every morning in an office on Austin Street. Our newsroom is a good cross-section of people: grumpy old farts like me who carry a cellphone (a flip phone that can barely text), and a range of younger, more technologically adept men and women with not the very latest of technology, but certainly smartphones and tablets. We don’t meet for that long — sometimes close to an hour — but it’s rare in that meeting to not have half the attendees, sometimes more, watching their phones for texts or tweets, along with responding to the same, throughout the meeting. This isn’t meant to trash my coworkers: it’s a simple fact, and one that practically everyone experiences.

Pavlov knew that when the bell rang, the dogs would drool. When our phones ring or vibrate or chirp, it’s equally hard to stop the drooling.

And what holds true for meetings is equally the case in grocery store lineups, making your way through the mall and any host of other public places. I’m not really that grumpy a guy (someone at the newspaper has to play the role of crusty news veteran, and it’s a surprisingly simple one to pull off), but it’s remarkable how quickly I come to a boil when an entire process —whether it’s traffic at a newly green light or a lineup you’re trying to get through to get home — is locked in neutral because someone is lost in cellular space.

Am I alone in thinking that common courtesy requires two things: first, that when you’re with people, whether it’s a group or your lover, that you owe them your undivided attention, unless you excuse yourself and step away.?

And secondly, that when you’re thrown together in something as close as an airplane, that you owe your companions at least as much deference and peace and quiet as you’d want in return?

I think it’s time we all started putting the people we’re with first; the person next to you on an airplane, so close that you can feel the warmth of their body through your arm on the armrest, is a real person.

The voice on the other end of the line?

Unless you’re a heart surgeon walking an intern through complex surgery they’ve never undertaken before, the voice on the other end can probably wait to hear about your frustrating business trip or your latest relationship issue until you’re both in the same room.

Then, you and that person can revel in sharing the experience with each other, rather than sharing the irritation of it with anyone who’s had the bad luck of being sentenced to the airline seat next to yours.

Cellphones on planes? The very idea is one of the nine circles of hell, tucked right in tight between greed and anger.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached

by email at

Organizations: Bluetooth

Geographic location: Austin Street

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