Big Apple Dingalings

New York's new ban on phone rudeness

In New York City, cell phone use in concerts, plays, and other performances has just become illegal. Rude chatterers (actually, any chatterers) risk a $50 fine, though the City Council member who sponsored the measure insists that police won't actually be enforcing the law. So in essence, it acts only as the city council's official declaration that it's rude to interrupt the final moments of Hairspray for a conversation with your cat sitter, weed connection, bikini waxer, or anyone else. As if even New Yorkers didn't already know that.

Several years ago, I went to a one-woman show in a small black-box theatre in Austin, Texas. Ten minutes into the performance, a woman's cell phone rang. Disdain shot through the crowd; every eyebrow in the room flew up. Fortunately, the quick-witted performer gave the girl some good-natured heckle, and all was forgiven.

But 50 seconds later, the girl's cell phone rang again. And, giggling, she answered it. This time, eyebrows went up and jaws went down. The crowd was totally dumbstruck by the extraordinary temerity of this third-row twit. Suddenly, there were two performances going on at once.

But that was back in the wireless Wild West. It's been ages since I've come across such extreme cellular impertinence. No longer is the mobile a luxury novelty item that gives its user some sense of entitlement to be obnoxious. At least in major cities, cell phones are right up there with underwear as must-haves for civilized people. According to Forbes, 60 percent of Americans now use them.

So inevitably, social rules for cell phone etiquette are gradually emerging, no prodding from city government required. Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, no friend of non-governmental codes of conduct in other areas, points out, "We do not hesitate to 'shush'...Some standards of conduct, not directly affecting public health or safety, can best be enforced not through legislation but through less formal means."

In some venues, people are now more tolerant: You can get away with chatting quietly in line at the grocery store without any glares. But watch out when a cell phone squeaks out half a ring during a movie preview—which happens rarely since theaters started running helpful reminders to turn off ringers. The occasional accidental ring doesn't just get glares, it now merits an extra five seconds of hissing, shushing, moaning, and—my favorite—the long, protracted, "what have I done to deserve the modern world?" sigh. Suddenly, rude behavior isn't limited to the offending ringer, but continued by his or her aggrieved neighbors.

There's sometimes going to be that forgetful someone—and there will very occasionally be a true-blue twit—but what's often missing these days isn't codified etiquette, or even vigilance. It's a little patience, all around.

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