- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

The cell phone as a constant companion is a fairly new concept. So is figuring out what is appropriate cell-phone behavior, says Alex Packer, a Massachusetts psychologist and author of several books on teenagers and manners.

“You can’t go anywhere without being exposed to secondhand sound,” Mr. Packer says.

That secondhand sound can be heard in areas once reserved for silence, or at least whispers. Phones are ringing in the library, and consumers appear to be talking to themselves in the supermarket.

Freya Novak of Bellmore, N.Y., says even the ladies room is not exempt, and she finds that annoying.

“The other day I had to listen to this woman’s entire conversation,” she says while shopping recently with her teenage daughter at Tysons Corner Center. “Nothing is that important that you have to be on the phone all the time.”

That is an important message to get across to teens, Mr. Packer says. Particularly irksome is the hands-free technology, which allows people to talk on the phone and do several other tasks at once.

“You should tell teens that despite the piece of plastic in your ear, you appear to be someone who is talking to himself,” he says. “That is a huge distraction. Do not use the hands-free set in any place that talking to yourself would be inappropriate.”

Other things to consider:

• Turn off the phone — or at least put it on a silent ringer — in any place that demands decorum. This includes church, class, concerts and meetings or “anywhere that an intrusion of a phone call is not wanted,” Mr. Packer says.

An exception could be made if a call comes in that everyone in the room may want to hear, he says, such as a relative calling during a family gathering the caller could not attend.

• If the phone vibrates, step out of the room to talk. The other restaurant patrons and moviegoers will thank you, Mr. Packer says.

However, there are some situations in which you should stay put and call the person back later, he says.

“Obviously, the middle of a eulogy at your best friend’s funeral is not the time to take a call,” Mr. Packer says.

• Don’t accept or make calls (or text messages) during meals.

“I might look at it if a call comes in, but I might call them back later,” says Mrs. Novak’s daughter, Julie, 15.

• If you are talking to someone in person, don’t hold multiple conversations with others at the same time. This can happen with call waiting, text messaging, two-way paging and other cell-phone technology.

“There is a real irony in all this technology,” Mr. Packer says. “This is communications technology, but it tends to isolate people.”

• Driving and talking on the phone or even dialing the phone are huge distractions. In fact, talking and driving without a hands-free device is banned in the District.

Alexa Feldman, regional spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless, says parents should talk to teens about distracted driving. Many cell phone companies also have safety tips and educational programs to help parents get their point across.

• Remember, if you are talking on the phone in public, people are definitely listening. So watch what you are saying and how you say it.

In fact, some people are so weary of listening to others talking all the time they are taking action. Amtrak, for instance, has designated phone-free cars on its trains. Mr. Packer says other public areas are likely to follow.

“I took the train recently, and the phone-free section was full,” says Mr. Packer, who ended up sitting in the regular section. “There must have been a dozen [cell-phone] conversations going on all around me. It seemed like verbal exhibitionism.”

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