02/14/2008 04:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

And Cell Phone Makes Three

Reading Heather Cabot's persuasive plea for a cell phone-free Valentine's Day (so romance can happen absent a jingly ringtone serenade), I'm inspired to piggyback with my own argument for making the experiment permanent. The work/life balance isn't my issue, though; I'm in front of a home computer all day, hence my land line's the de facto business number, and my clients generally don't need to reach me at odd hours. My beef is with those of us who keep the things strapped to our sides like miniature oxygen tanks, because we know we can't live without them. After all, without them we wouldn't know what's holding up the plumber, or the color shirt we should buy our daughters at the Gap sale, and we couldn't place those "Nothing, what are you doing?" calls on the commute home.

I'm talking about discretionary users, the ones who make elective calls early and often--in other words, a good chunk of the people I know. Not that there isn't value in being able to do all those things, and who hasn't? It's just that I've become increasingly aware lately that all this convenience, base-touching and general silence-avoidance comes at a high price to the social fabric, one that I'm not willing to pay.

My biggest peeve is when friends get into long exchanges while we're having lunch, walking the dog or otherwise hanging out. These inbound calls tend to arrive just when we're spilling our guts about spousal indifference, or the unspeakable thing we found at the bottom of our teenager's closet, or we feel otherwise vulnerable/worried/freaked out. I know better than to hope my colleague won't answer the damn thing; this is a face-off that a person who's present will lose every time to someone who's somewhere else, and I'm not sure why. Anyway, the recipient then becomes absorbed in her phone conversation, while the other's left to spontaneously vaporize and rematerialize when the call's over. I once spent 15 minutes in a mall parking lot trying to look absorbed with the local hybrid to SUV ratio while a friend talked doctors' appointments with her college-age daughter. When my friend got off her call, she took up in our conversation where she'd left off, as if time had stood still.

The flip side of being an involuntary third wheel, of course, is the oft-lamented forced eavesdropping that we'd do anything to avoid, but can't. Whether it's friends or strangers talking, when we're in elevators, trains, any and all closed-in public places, we have no choice but to listen in, especially because cell phone talkers tend to reflexively yell in the unconscious desire to make the other person speak up. In the local Y locker room (where cell phones aren't allowed, of course), I once overheard a woman sharing intimate details of her divorce, and loudly urging the listener not to tell anyone. I resisted the urge to walk over and let her know that she could count on me to keep quiet.

How can so many otherwise well-intentioned people be so rude? Because when they get on the cell phone, their relationship is with the person on the other end of the line, and they forget that they're in public, that they're behind the wheel of a three-ton car, that they're in the middle of doing something with someone else. That they exist in real time, time that they're now spending multi-tasking and, chances are, short-changing everyone in their efforts.

I'm not asking anyone to chuck their phones, Hollywood-style, into the nearest fountain, or to even leave them at home, God forbid. But ask yourself: Outside of work and a close circle of those near and dear, who really has to have your wireless number? In other words, how many real personal emergencies do you generally have on a daily basis? Could that call from your accountant wait till you get home, would your college-age kid never speak to you again if you returned the call a half hour later, and do you really need to give a blow-by-blow of your root canal on the train? Or are you just bored? Try immersing yourself in a newspaper, book or iPod that won't interrupt the couple in front of you. They have their own cell phones for that.