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Cell phone talker's arrest stirs etiquette debate

Public chatter on mobile phones is annoying--when other people use them. But how do we tackle the problem?

Can we talk about talking on cell phones?

The matter has been simmering for years as wireless gabbing takes place in more and more settings. For one woman in the Washington, D.C., area, it came to a head recently when she was arrested, reportedly for speaking too loudly near a bus stop.

According to a story in Tuesday's Washington Post, a transit police officer thought that the woman was disturbing the peace with loud cell-phone talk and eventually wrestled her to the ground. Police said the woman was cursing into her phone, but she said she cursed after she'd been grabbed, according to the newspaper.

Peter Post, great grandson of etiquette maven Emily Post and director of the Emily Post Institute, said the cell phone has warped people's sense of politeness. When the little brick rings, he argues, people lose sight of how they might be bothering others.

"It's gotten us into this craze that we've got to do this now," he said. "Things can wait five minutes."

Post said that the problem isn't so much how loud people are, but rather people talking on cell phones in public settings about inappropriate topics, such as the qualifications of a job candidate or details of their hysterectomies. He recalled an occasion when he was in an airport waiting room, where a woman carried on a heated argument with her husband, via cell phone, over his picking her up. The woman's call made everyone in the room uncomfortable, Post said.

And he said it doesn't work to simply disregard a rude mobile caller--people are better at ignoring two-way conversations than monologues.

"It's much, much harder to tune out that one-sided conversation," Post said. "It's very hard not to listen."

There are nearly 170 million U.S. wireless subscribers, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association trade group. And it's hard to go anywhere without seeing--and hearing--people on their mobile phones, in stores, in restaurants and even on subway trains.

A survey published this summer by Sprint found that 80 percent of U.S. adults reported they felt people were less courteous when using a wireless phone today than five years ago.

Interestingly, people tend to see themselves as virtuous when it comes to that phone in their pocket or pocketbook. Ninety-seven percent of those surveyed classified themselves as "very courteous" or "somewhat courteous" in their use of a wireless phone.

Some companies in the wireless industry, including Sprint, have tried to advise consumers on how to mind their mobile manners. LetsTalk, which reviews cell phones and service plans, recommends that "no citizen should take a call at a theater or in the movies" and suggests that "when asked by an establishment or airline to refrain from using a cell phone, do so."

Post's advice for civil cell phone use boils down to paying more attention to one's social setting than to the little device that's begging to be answered.

"Be a master of your cell phone, not a slave," he said. "If people did that, all the other things would work themselves out."