Cell Phone Penitents

In my office everyone gets a cubicle with a desk, a computer, and a phone. On those rare occasions when a technical glitch brings down the computer network we say to hell with it and go hang out in the bar across the street because no one’s getting any work done anyway. If a glitch just brings the phones down, however, you hardly notice. My sense is that phone use increases as you move up the executive chain, and I sit a knight’s move away from a business development guy whose affable sales pitches I eavesdrop on all day long, but for the most part the people around me just don’t use the phones the company provides them. Mine rang the other day and my first reaction was literally, “What the hell is that?” And this is for business phone calls. Personal phone calls–no one makes those from their desk.

Flash back fifteen years ago when I was working at Microsoft: everyone likewise had a phone on their desk. You made business phone calls. You made personal phone calls. Sometimes you got sneaky and made a long distance personal call on the company’s dime. You did all this with a frequency that is unmatched today.  Much of the dropoff is due to email and social networks–for the moment, we have shifted away from the twentieth century voice model for idle chit-chat back to the Victorian practice of sending each other little notes. But more significant, I think, is the rise of cell phones. Walk outside the keycarded doors of the office into the bland no-man’s land of the hallway where the elevators and the bathrooms are located and you’re likely to find one or two people pacing in circles, heads lowered, murmuring into hand-held devices. People still make plenty of personal calls–they just do them out there.

There’s no policy against making a personal call on your desk phone. Nor is it frowned upon. People do it. But most, by unspoken convention, go out into the hallway. That’s what I do. This came so naturally to me that it was a while before I stopped to think about why. I believe the reason is technological, but in a roundabout way. Even though the core telephone technology has remained unchanged (cell phones’ portability rendered moot by having an desk phone always within arm’s reach), the ecosystem around it has changed, and this has given rise to new social conventions.

Cell phones are highly optimized for personal communication. Each contains a personal directory of numbers (what mine is the last generation to think of as a “Rolodex” even if we never personally used Rolodexes), missed call logs, texts from three months ago, and so on. They win in this arena. So then why not make a personal call on your cell phone while sitting at your desk? I think it’s because we’ve internalized the idea that public cell phone use should be done unobtrusively. You don’t want to be loudmouth on the bus that everyone hates, yapping on one-sidedly about his boring life. You want to at least make a little show of being surreptitious. At a nice restaurant you step outside to take a phone call, and stepping outside has become so ingrained that you do it even in a place like an office where you don’t have to. Ingrained–but also tinged with awareness. Because cell phones have only become truly widespread in the U.S. in the past decade or so, the etiquette governing their use is still fresh, making it easy to overcorrect. Those of us wandering out in the hall–we’re not just making dinner plans. With the mere location of our bodies we’re negotiating.

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