Don't Talk on Your Phone

In Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany, “over half of those surveyed had some form of negative reaction to mobile phone use in public.” Sadie Plant quoted Goffman by way of explaining the discomfort associated with overhearing mobile telephone conversations: “A conversation has a life on its own behalf. It is a little social system with its own boundary-maintaining tendencies; it is a little patch of commitment and loyalty with its own heroes and its own villains.” Plant notes, “To overhear a conversation is to listen in to one of these worlds. To overhear just one of its sides is to be neither fully admitted nor completely excluded from its world.”

Other observers of this phenomenon have referred to Goffman’s theories about the different “faces” we present to different audiences:

We believe that talking on a mobile phone in a public place is in part a matter of a conflict of social spaces in which people assume different faces. Mobile phone use often necessitates the interweaving of multiple activities and of multiple public faces. When mobile phone users are on the phone, they are simultaneously in two places: the space they physically occupy, and the virtual space of the conversation (the conversational space). When a phone call comes in (or perhaps more pretentiously, when a call is placed out), the user decides, consciously or otherwise, what face takes precedence: the face that is consonant with one’s physical environment, or that of the conversational space. The greater the conflict between the behavioral requirements of the two spaces, the more conscious, explicit, and difficult this decision might be.

One’s assumption of multiple faces, it would seem, is what is largely at issue for those who find public mobile telephone use disturbing or even offensive. First, choosing to be behaviorally present in a different space from one’s physical location may be perceived as inconsiderate by those in the space. Second, a mobile phone user might have to violate (or at least perturb) the social norms of the physical space in order to honor the norms in the conversational space. Finally, perhaps what is most apparent to the public is that the face one presents on the phone is in contrast to the face assumed just before the phone call. This changing act brings to the fore that faces are publicly assumed, which then gives rise to the feeling that the new face and perhaps even the old face are false.

Smart Mobs fragments

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