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In Public, Cell Phones Equal Cigarettes

Nuisance: You're in a quiet restaurant with someone you love. Suddenly . . .

November 29, 1998|DENNIS AIGNER | Dennis Aigner is a professor at UC Irvine's Graduate School of Management

Things have changed a lot in the past decade. No smoking on airplanes, in public buildings, in most restaurants. It must drive the smokers nuts. Or, at least, underground.

Now technology has created the next big nuisance--the cell phone. It used to be that if you needed to make a phone call in a restaurant, you went to the pay phone next to the cigarette machine outside the restrooms. If you received a call, you were paged and took the call at the hostess desk while dozens of other people were calling in to make dinner reservations. As a result, the conversations were necessarily short. That has all changed.

A couple of days ago, I was at LAX having a beer and a wonderful Wisconsin bratwurst sandwich. Next to me was a guy doing business on a cell phone having a Coke and a foot-long hot dog. Admittedly, it was pretty loud in that place, what with the Packers game on TV and quite a few people talking. I could understand why he might need to turn up the volume on the receiver. But he also began talking louder as the external decibel level rose. I can't imagine what it was like to be the person he was talking to.

Think of the worst-case scenario, which I've recently come close to experiencing. You're in a small, intimate restaurant with your significant other, looking forward to an evening of quiet conversation and great food. All of a sudden, as if everyone else around you just lit up, they whip out their cell phones and start talking. What had a moment ago been a touching scene in your favorite romantic movie has just been transformed into the battle sequence in "Star Wars."

With all the competition for cell phone business, the price per minute has come way down and the phones are cheap. And weekend calls are free! Here's an encounter I had last week: In a hotel breakfast buffet line, a man on a cell call dropped the bowl of oatmeal and fruit plate he was balancing with one hand all over the place, leaving the rest of us to get by on breakfast cereal and stewed prunes until things were cleaned up.

I don't want cell phones banned from restaurants and public places. No, that wouldn't be cruel enough. I want cell phone users relegated to special cells like the smoking rooms at the airport. Let the cell phone users suffer the same fate, stuffed in a room together, trying to make sense not only of their own conversations but those of the multitudes around them, the decibel level rising like the takeoff of a jet plane until, at last, they must escape to use the pay phones.

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