Holiday travel diary: Hell is other peoples' cell phones

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My college philosophy buddy Jean Paul (Sartre) once wrote, “Hell is other people.” That always sounded like more of his usual babble, but now I’m starting to get it.

Over my holiday travels, I learned far more than I wanted to about the lives of others, including a lot of the very personal and mundane details—“Did Susie go pick up the dry-cleaning yet?”—through overheard phone conversations in rental car shuttles, inside airports, and on airplanes before take-off. 

I learned:

  • A lady in the Southwest terminal at San Francisco International Airport has “mixed feelings” about her niece’s plans to go to college a year early next year, and that her daughter should have told her about the mechanic’s estimate for her car, which has brake issues.
  • A guy waiting at gate C45 in Denver wants his kid (or somebody) to grab all the bikes and other crap strewn on the lawn, and lock it all in the garage before leaving for skiing.
  • Another dude in a flat-bill cap, while sitting on the tarmac in Phoenix, informed some unknown bro that he felt the “go-to-market” plan for the new something-or-other is “totally solid,” and that now “it just comes down to execution.”

It made me wonder if this constant (and growing) barrage of other peoples’ mundanities—this “social pollution”— is just an annoyance, or if it could be bad for our psyches, our senses of self. If nothing else, it's certainly shifting cultural mores around our expectations of public versus private. 

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The big cell phone companies and wireless carriers have been pushing hard in the last decade to get a smartphone into the hands of every American with a pulse, and they've nearly finished the job, much to the delight of their stockholders. Ninety-one percent of us now own mobile phones. Fifty-six percent of us own app-running, web-connected smartphones. And like most big corporate undertakings, this is almost certainly having unintended, if subtle, consequences. 

I believe the near-ubiquity of mobile phones is almost certainly changing our mores relating to privacy, discretion and good manners. I see it on the street every day.

More and more people are completely comfortable talking on their phones in public as loudly as they would at home. The social pressure that used to make people discuss private matters quietly and discreetly has withered away. Public jabbering about personal life is becoming accepted behavior. 

Self-esteem-challenged people probably talk even louder than they would in private, broadcasting some amped-up version of their dull existences to everyone within earshot. Twitter is another favorite tool of these types. 

One small proof of this shift is the emergence of “cell phone crashing.” Check out the video below. Invented by comedian Greg Benson, phone "crashing" is one of the few ways that victims of public phone calls can fight back.  

What is all this doing to us? What effect is all this overheard mundane chatter having on our brains, our psyches and our general peace-of-mind?

"When this started happening we thought that the etiquette would eventually catch up with the technology," says Dr. Hilary Cash, who runs a technology addiction program in Washington state. "We thought that when people finally realized that these outspoken phone calls were disturbing other people, they would make a greater effort to talk more quietly. But that hasn't happened. Instead the mores have shifted to accommodate the loud phone talking, and we just tolerate it."

For me it's all about the bland mundanity of other people's lives.  We are regularly being subjected to the mundane details of other people’s lives—the health problems, financial trivia, dinner plans, sex lives, family dramas and general gossip of complete strangers. 

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We get even more social pollution from social media. People we barely know on Facebook and Twitter regularly give us unwanted glimpses into their private lives. 

With all these mundane details of other people’s lives flowing into our minds, could it start to drown out the normal noise of our own lives? As the chatter level rises, will we naturally begin to tune it out? If we do, does all that useless information keep flowing into our memory banks anyway? (cue The Scream). 

A new year’s prayer to the FAA: Please never, never, never allow phone calls on plane flights. Air rage incidents will skyrocket, and some of them might involve me. 

Happy new year. Hang up and live. 

This story, "Holiday travel diary: Hell is other peoples' cell phones" was originally published by TechHive.

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